Perhaps no one saw it coming, but the battle to reopen schools during the Coronavirus crisis has been one of the hardest for the Government. This is partly as a result of the teaching unions, which have done everything they can to obstruct the plans, even telling schools not to engage with governmental proposals in June.
More recently the 450,000 member-strong National Education Union (NEU) has compiled a 25-page “workplace checklist” for schools, consisting of 200 demands. The document has been criticised for being “impossible” to meet, with ex-Education Secretary Justine Greening saying that the “NEU needs to focus on finding solutions, not problems.” Hear, hear.
With little under a month to go until schools are due to reopen, the extent to which Boris Johnson is concerned about the situation was obvious this weekend in his article for the Mail on Sunday. He warned that keeping “schools closed a moment longer than is absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible”, adding that “social justice demands” their reopenings.
It was a dramatic plea to parents, and Labour, spelling out the damage closures are doing, from socioeconomic to health implications.
While a recent YouGov poll found that 57 per cent of the British public thinks that schools should fully reopen over the summer holidays, a firm 25 per cent answered that they shouldn’t, and 18 per cent said “not sure”. So Johnson is right to push the issue – today he is expected to visit a school, in which he will repeat his pledge that they must reopen, and there will also be a PR drive from the Government.
In general, the problem the Government has is trying to emphasise encouraging statistics to the population, in regards to risk. It has found it much easier to convey the dangers of the virus – and subsequent need to “stay home” – than the rationale for getting life back to normal.
In regards to schools, a lot of media coverage has focussed on a Lancet study, which said that without a proper track and trace programme, there could be a huge second wave of Covid-19. This was a worst case scenario assessment, yet it seems to have stuck in the nation’s mind, as have the predictions of scientists such as David King, formerly chief scientific adviser to the Government, who warned that “we are nowhere near the point” where school reopenings “can be done safely”. This made several strong headlines, despite the fact King has been shown to oppose the Government generally.
The more in-depth evidence suggests that schools are one of the safest places to reopen in society. Data indicates that children have extremely low risk of getting ill from Coronavirus; a study of over 55,000 hospital patients found that only 0.8 per cent were under the age of 19, and crucially they do not seem to transmit it in the same way as adults. Research of Covid-19 in the French Alps showed that a child who tested positive for the virus did not give it to over 100 people they had contact with while having symptoms.
One reason Johnson has to feel particularly confident about school reopenings is extensive research carried out by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health across 100 institutions. It showed that “there is very little evidence” of Coronavirus transmission where pupils have returned, and corroborated a separate review of 35 studies from around the world showing that children and schools only play a “minor role” in the spread of the disease.
Furthermore, there is the fact that many schools in Europe successfully reopened. The UK was incredibly lucky in that it did not go first in this process, and thus could respond to data coming from other countries; if there had been mass outbreaks, you can bet that we would have heard about it. That Europe has been successful in reopenings has largely been ignored in the media – and by the opposition.
Which brings us to one of Labour’s role in the schools crisis. At the beginning of the pandemic, many people had hoped for a more united front between the two main parties in fighting the virus. But Starmer has always schools as an opportunity to undermine the Government, recently telling ministers they have a month to fix the Coronavirus test-and-trace system in readiness for reopenings.
Kate Green, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, has already refused to say whether schools were safe, despite adding that it was “essential” for them to reopen – at a time when many parents and teachers need reassurances from all political sides. Labour clearly thinks that this approach makes them look caring – extreme caution will always appear the most righteous route – and yet it ignores the evidence that schools can reopen safely, as well as how devastating these closures will be in the long-term.
With the Government having published extensive guidelines to get schools open, alongside the increased data on children’s low transmission, there really should not be a delay in pressing ahead now. And if Labour has objections, to echo Greening’s words, it must focus “on finding solutions”. Surely that is not too much to ask.