Sign up to myFT Daily Digest to be the first to know about UK schools news.
The Children’s Commissioner for England has issued a powerful plea to keep schools open if local and national coronavirus lockdowns are imposed — at the expense of pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops.
“Schools must be the first to reopen and the last to close during any local lockdowns,” said Anne Longfield. “If the choice has to be made in a local area about whether to keep pubs or schools open, then schools must always take priority.”
Prominent scientists supported her intervention, which followed a warning on Friday by Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, that the country was “near the limit” of what it could do to relax restrictions while preventing a resurgence of Covid-19.
Schools in England and Wales are due to reopen in early September but there are fears that this could fuel a resurgence of infections.
Ms Longfield’s statement comes a day after the government warned that London and other major cities could see tough new restrictions imposed if levels of Covid-19 surged in the coming months. Last week, ministers announced measures affecting more than 4m people in north-west England after infection levels there rose.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, which represents teachers, said that while opening of schools was essential for children’s education and wellbeing, as well as for the economy, it was also dependent on the spread of coronavirus.
“We need the infection rate to be low enough that people feel safe to be back at school,” he said. He added that the government’s strategy of creating large “bubbles”, allowing all pupils in a single year group to mix freely, could increase infection levels in schools. He urged ministers to consider smaller class sizes, including identifying new spaces for schooling and recruiting new teachers.
But Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh university, said that schools were not as likely as previously thought to be the source of spikes in infection.
“They cannot be made perfectly safe but there is a growing feeling among epidemiologists that we have overstated the role of schools in transmitting this virus because we had a historical mindset assuming that it would be like flu,” Prof Woolhouse said.
He added: “Children are not particularly good transmitters of this virus. Though there will be some transmission in schools, there is no way schools are driving this epidemic.”
Matt Keeling, professor of populations and disease at Warwick university, agreed that fear of opening schools could be overblown, and pointed out that teachers, rather than pupils, were responsible for most school outbreaks. “The partial reopening that occurred in June has not seen a steep rise in cases nor many local outbreaks associated with schools,” he said.
“In fact, most school outbreaks are centred around teaching staff rather than students, reflecting the fact that younger children are generally less susceptible and may transmit less when asymptomatic. The staffroom may be far more dangerous than the classroom.”
In her statement, Ms Longfield called for regular testing of all pupils and teachers, regardless of whether they had Covid-19. She said this would help to keep schools safe and mean that entire “bubbles” or year groups would not have to be sent home once a case of Covid-19 occurred.
She added that testing would be particularly important in the 2020/21 winter season when clusters of flu could be mistaken for a Covid-19 outbreak and result in unnecessary closure or interruption.
Ms Longfield also made a plea for pupils’ pastoral care to be a priority, warning that some would show “challenging behaviour” when they returned to the classroom and others may stay away from school altogether.
This was supported by Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at Southampton university, who said that “so far there has been lack of focus and absence of policies directed at children’s mental health and wellbeing”.
He pointed out that when children returned to their lessons, “there should not be a hardcore focus on the academic curriculum. Schools must take account of the trauma and bereavements children may have suffered during five months away from the classroom”.
Ms Longfield also said there was evidence of a rise in mental health issues in children because of the lockdown. She called for NHS mental health teams to work with schools to provide advice and support to prevent problems escalating.
Prof Woolhouse admitted that “at the beginning of the pandemic, all the analysis focused on reducing the health burden of Covid-19 itself”, but said that the emphasis was shifting to “the non-Covid health effects of lockdown, the mental toll, lost schooling and education, the huge economic impact and harm to societal wellbeing”.
He added: “It is clear that the people who are bearing the brunt of this pandemic are children and young people who are least susceptible to the disease”.
Get alerts on UK schools when a new story is published