Archive for August, 2020

In three weeks schools re-open and a few weeks later undergraduates return to university. Universities appear to be moving to a model of having all students in attendance, and using a lot of remote teaching. This in itself is not necessarily a bad idea, as there will be facilities available and for 1st years in Halls and for many later year undergraduates they may have better internet connectivity, plus there is the library various computer rooms.

There will have to be some face-to-face teaching, as there are limits to what can be done remotely and this is even more the case for schools.

What concerns me is the lack of plans and the absence of clear procedures, based on best practice. A campus university of course has many advantages, since it could in principle function as a giant bubble, with testing at the gate, as well as testing within campus of students and employees (who will be coming in from the outside). Universities embedded in a city face far more serious challenges. Liverpool University alone will bring 20,000 undergraduates into the city with second and later years dispersed over a fairly large area of the south end.

For both schools and Universities, things have been made worse by government policies relating to space usage: maximise space use or you are financially penalised, either directly or indirectly. Such ‘efficiency’ means the system is extremely brittle and cannot cope with stress. The NHS suffers from the same problem. So face-to-face teaching means reducing numbers/m2 by at least 50%, likely 60-70%. 

However social distancing is not safe indoors. We have a documented transmission of SARS-CoV-2 indoors over 8 m. So 2 m will help, but will not prevent. Moreover, looking at queues, people in shops etc., few have any idea how far 2 m is – quite a long way. 

We have to wear masks, or in some instances a visor (not as good, but helps and allows lips to be read). Masks are recommended but not mandatory for researchers at Liverpool University, simply due to a vocal minority pushing forwards false information (masks increase risky behaviour and masks are dangerous) and stating we should only follow government advice. This is replicated elsewhere in the education system.

We also need to isolate each station occupied by a student: PETG on 3 sides. Not just for teaching, but also for canteens in halls of residence. After each ‘sitting’ entire station has to be sanitised.

Windows – open windows increases air change and appears to have a large effect on indoor transmission, first noted in a hospital in Guanzhou in February. So rooms without wimdows that can be opened should be off limits for teaching.

For schools, FE colleges, and Universities where is the mask policy? Where are the PETG separators? Where is the policy of open windows? Where is the test and trace?

It isn’t difficult, we have had since March to get ready. We have very good examples of best practice, here is one from Korea.

Closer to home, Devi Sridhar’s excellent recommendations in The Scotsman on how universities should re-open undergraduate teaching

The very good Irish Tracing app cost all of £340,000 to develop and the code (fully app store compliant) is on GitHub. Easy enough to implement for a city. We could have ‘localised’ versions: Toffee, Kop, generic Scouse one with Liver Bird logo, and so on. Take up, suitably promoted would be very high.

We appear to suffer from a lack of leadership, and an acceptance that we should somehow follow advice of the most corrupt and incompetent government this country has have for a long time, perhaps for its entire history. Instead we should be aiming for zero covid. We have the means, the tools, but appear to lack the will.

I am not looking forwards to September/October. The news on the Long Covid front, which affects the young more than the old should be focussing minds but I have not seen much evidence for this.


Edit August 18: Birmingham City University appears to have got its act together. Face coverings are mandatory on campus. Any others? 

Edits August 23

The BMJ has a call to government to recognise importance of aerosols. 

With thanks to @jmcrookston whose reflections on Twitter regarding the myth of droplets and the importance of aerosols had links to papers on the subject of aerosol transmission of viruses. 

Bloch et al., Measles outbreak in a pediatric practice: airborne transmission in an office setting

Remington et al., Airborne transmission of measles in a physician’s office

Why the focus on droplets when aerosol will be produced is a mystery. Droplets will, when they leave the 100% of the respiratory tract evaporate to aerosols quickly, due to their high surface area to volume ratio. A mask will catch droplets before this happens and will slow down the airflow, as shown in this video.

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The UK fiasco in school exam grades highlights the poverty of the political class in all the constituent nations, though the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon are rather better than their Westminster counterparts. Better because after defending the indefensible, they came up with the only equitable solution given the circumstances. In contrast Westminster keeps digging.

The challenge was caused by locking down too late, though this has not been admitted and never will. Consequently, schools could not re-open, so no examinations (Highers, A-levels etc.). Add in the multiplicity of exam boards separate from government, with a central office responsible for oversight, and you have a rigid system, unable to adapt to new circumstances. So impossible to construct alternative assessments, as was done successfully and to great effect in other countries.


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