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Keeping England's schools open 'must take priority' in second wave of Covid-19

The Guardian logo The Guardian 05/08/2020 Sally Weale Education correspondent

Video: Nicola Sturgeon gives appeal advice to students following SQA exam results (Daily Record)

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a boy sitting in front of a computer screen: Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Schools should be last to close and first to reopen in the event of a second wave of Covid-19, with regular testing for pupils and teachers to reassure parents and keep schools safe, according to the children’s commissioner for England.

Anne Longfield said children had too often been “an afterthought” during the crisis, but from now on they should be at the heart of planning for future coronavirus lockdowns, and she insisted pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops should be shut ahead of schools in the case of emergency restrictions.

The commissioner’s intervention comes after a new modelling study found that if schools in England were to reopen safely in September, the government’s test-trace-isolate strategy would have to be rapidly improved in order to avoid a second wave of Covid-19 later this year.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 02: People dine outdoor at a restaurant in Clapham on August 2, 2020 in London, England. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said it is time to "squeeze that brake pedal" on reopening the economy, amid rising fears that the UK is on the brink of a second wave. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images) © 2020 Getty Images LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 02: People dine outdoor at a restaurant in Clapham on August 2, 2020 in London, England. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said it is time to "squeeze that brake pedal" on reopening the economy, amid rising fears that the UK is on the brink of a second wave. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)

There has also been growing unease among politicians that while most children had to study remotely during the course of the pandemic, other sections of society were allowed to open up for business.

In a new briefing paper, Longfield says keeping schools open should be the absolute priority. “When only a limited amount of social interaction is feasible, the amount accounted for by education must be protected – at the expense of other sectors/activities.”

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Acknowledging that remote learning will continue to play a role, the commissioner called for expansion of the government’s stuttering £85m scheme to provide laptops and 4G wifi routers to the most disadvantaged year 10 pupils, to make them available to children in all year groups who still lack digital access.

And in a worst-case scenario, the commissioner said the attendance of children in nurseries and primary schools should be prioritised ahead of secondaries, in line with growing understanding about the limited impact of Covid among the youngest pupils and childcare implications for working parents.

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“Too often during the first lockdown, children were an afterthought,” said Longfield. “The government’s promise that all children will be back to school after the summer holidays is a step in the right direction. However, if a second wave occurs, children must be at the heart of coronavirus planning.

“That means schools must be the first to reopen and the last to close during any local lockdowns. 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.”

With rapid testing of pupils and teachers, Longfield said any confirmed Covid-19 cases and their close contacts could be isolated without necessarily having to send entire classes or year groups home, keeping as many children in school as possible.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 02: People are seen shopping in Brixton Village on August 2, 2020 in London, England. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said it is time to "squeeze that brake pedal" on reopening the economy, amid rising fears that the UK is on the brink of a second wave. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images) © 2020 Getty Images LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 02: People are seen shopping in Brixton Village on August 2, 2020 in London, England. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said it is time to "squeeze that brake pedal" on reopening the economy, amid rising fears that the UK is on the brink of a second wave. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)

Responding to the commissioner’s comments, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, agreed it was vital to get children back into school, but warned it was important to prevent the Covid-19 outbreak from worsening as schools return.

“School leaders are currently preparing their schools for all children to return in September, and are following all the government and health guidance they have been given in order to make it as safe as possible. But the success of September’s return to school rests as much on what happens outside the school gates as within.”

The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, responded: “Getting all children back into the classroom full-time at the start of next month is a national priority, as this is the best place for them to be.

“We have always been and will continue to be guided by the best scientific and medical advice, and our detailed guidance sets out protective measures for schools to implement ahead of a full return in September.”

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Stay alert to stop coronavirus spreading - here is the latest government guidance. If you think you have the virus, don't go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn't available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.

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