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Schools: The closure dilemma

by
19 February 2021

Howard Dellar considers the legal and moral case for reopening schools

istock

ALTHOUGH 8 March approaches, the date on which the Government hopes to start reopening schools, England remains in turmoil.

There is no question that all want to secure the best education for young people. The debate continues, however, over the right way in which to balance two competing demands: serving the many children who learn best in a physical classroom — with the stimulation of in-person friendships, school assemblies, music, sports, etc. — and the need to reduce physical contact throughout society and so halt the spread of Covid-19, keep adults safe, and reduce the pressure on the NHS.

We saw how not to balance these two demands at the beginning of this term, when schools opened for one day, then closed for the rest of the half-term, and perhaps much longer. Murmurings from within Government indicate a difference of opinion among MPs about whether schools should reopen imminently, or remain in their current state until Easter, or even later.

 

THE reality, of course, as opposed to the rhetoric, is that schools and academies in England are not closed. They are open for children of critical workers and those described as “vulnerable pupils”. All other children are still being educated remotely — an extraordinary feat by the teaching staff.

The complication here is that there is no legal definition of a “vulnerable” pupil. On 8 January, the Department for Education published its guidance. This included those who are assessed as being in need under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989; looked-after children; those with a care plan (perhaps because of a disability); or children who are being supported by social services.

There are also clauses to enable schools to support young carers, those with mental-health issues, those living in temporary accommodation, and, more controversially, “those who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home (for example due to a lack of devices or quiet space to study)”. Without legal definition and therefore firm parameters, this latter category is especially flexible and could encompass many thousands of pupils.

This lack of clarity means that some schools are coping with in-person attendance of 40 per cent or more. If the purpose of closing schools was to reduce community transmission, then going from 95-per-cent attendance (the OFSTED guideline for a school to be judged “Good”) to 40-50 per cent is unlikely to be enough to make viral infection shrink quickly.

 

THE January closure was an acknowledgement that schools are a vector for transmission. The virulence of Covid-19 means that this has consequences for everyone in society, not just those directly involved as parents, pupils, or teaching staff.

Thus, if support of “vulnerable” pupils is paramount, and schools must remain open to serve them face to face, it follows that schools must therefore be made safer.

AlamyThe gym at the International High School in Paterson, New Jersey, used as a vaccination centre for local residents last month

The Oxford-AstraZeneca trials with children, announced last weekend, are a welcome opportunity to test the anecdotal evidence that younger children who contract the virus are less likely than their elders to become seriously ill, need hospital care, or die. But this level of immunity does not apply to school staff — adults, some of whom have underlying health conditions, or who live with people with such conditions, and all of whom are needed for a school to open to all pupils.

A class of 30 children whose teacher is self-isolating, shielding, protecting a vulnerable family member, or sick with Covid, will end up at home, learning remotely. Staff shortages rather than government pronouncements are going to dictate how fully schools can open.

 

FOR Church of England schools, the need to ensure that the most vulnerable pupils can continue to learn effectively is not just an aspiration: it is a fundamental moral purpose. Church-school land trusts remind us that the school’s charitable purpose was and is the education of children who are the most vulnerable in their communities.

If we accept that vulnerable pupils need face-to-face teaching more than their peers, then it is imperative that church schools work to narrow the attainment gap that has widened over this past year between the most disadvantaged and the more advantaged. If schools cannot turn away their neediest pupils, because the Church is called to serve them, the logical solution is to vaccinate school staff once the very elderly and vulnerable have received their jabs. By the start of February, at least 24 states in the United States were doing precisely that.

To fail to do so is to let down the children that charity law and Christian principles call them to serve.

 

Howard Dellar is a partner in, and head of, the Education, Ecclesiastical and Charities Depart­ment at Lee Bolton Monier-Williams. He writes in a personal capacity.

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