Schools re-opening: The necessary next step?

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The prime minister recently announced his eagerly awaited ‘roadmap out of lockdown’, finally giving England its long-awaited guide for the re-opening of sectors of the economy, and a gradual return to freedom.

The very first step, expected to be taken on March 8th, is the re-opening of all schools and colleges in England, as well as universities for students on practical courses. Since the announcement, there has been widespread concern that this plan for a ‘big bang’ re-opening of education settings will cause another dreaded spike in the currently tamed R-rate.

Infection rates are still 3 times the level they were when schools first re-opened in September.

These concerns are not unwarranted; infection rates are, after all, still running at 3 times the level they were when schools first re- opened in September. This is despite the continuing national lockdown. Papers released by SAGE, the government’s scientific advisory body, stress that the re- opening of primary and secondary education settings has the potential to increase the R-rate by 50%.

The government should consider smaller, and far more cautious steps in re-opening education settings, rather than the proposed leap of faith.

One might remark that there is a significant difference with re-opening schools this time around; that is, of course, the vaccination programme. Whilst the rollout of vaccinations continues to steam ahead at an impressive pace, Health Secretary Matt Hancock recently announced that vaccines are now to be prioritised solely based on age group and underlying health conditions, and that there would no longer be prioritisation for certain professions, like there had previously been for healthcare workers.

This sparked an outcry from teaching unions, who cited that teachers were terrified of returning to classrooms under the current circumstances, and without priority for vaccination. Data shows that teachers are at a far higher risk of contracting Covid-19 than almost all other professions, including nursing.

Teachers are at far higher risk of contracting Covid-19 than almost all other professions, including nursing.

To maximise the chances of a successful re-opening of schools- one that does not considerably increase infection rates- the government should strongly consider aiming to vaccinate teachers as a priority. The government claims there are concerns that the vaccine rollout would be slowed down by this, since data on professions is not readily available to the NHS.

Such concerns could easily be addressed by working alongside teaching unions to identify teachers and invite them for vaccination. Outside of teaching unions, the government is being praised for prioritising the return of schools, and therefore children’s wellbeing. School-age children have suffered immensely during their extended leaves from school, with those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds often finding home-studying the toughest, and mental health issues now on the rise amongst young people.

Mr Johnson has already appointed a ‘catch-up tsar’ to help co-ordinate a response to the amount of learning children have missed out on as a result of the pandemic. The importance of schooling for young people’s educational and mental wellbeing simply cannot be understated, and Mr Johnson’s heavy emphasis on the re-opening of education settings is therefore admirable.

The importance of schooling for young people’s educational and mental wellbeing simply cannot be understated.

Whilst it cannot be denied that a return to school for all children as soon as possible is absolutely crucial for young people’s wellbeing, the government must, however, proceed with extreme caution.

The wish for a ‘big-bang’ re-opening of schools is understandable; there is a widespread desire to see children back in the classroom, and the success of this first step is also crucial in unlocking more sectors of the economy. However, in light of the considerable risks posed by-reopening schools, a more gradual approach, similar to that planned for Wales and Scotland, should be taken in England, and should ideally be accompanied by vaccine prioritisation for teachers.

The re-opening of schools is vital and must be done correctly. If rushed, the consequences for the future course of the pandemic in England could be dire.

Image: BackBoris2012 Campaign Team via Flickr.

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