THE Government is under increasing pressure from all sides to set out a national emergency response to the impact of the pandemic on schoolchildren. There are also requests for some kind of timetable for when schools could expect to reopen to all pupils.
The growing unrest follows the suggestion by the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, on Monday that schools might not open even after Easter. The Prime Minister responding to questions during a visit to a vaccination centre on the same day, promised: “We will tell you as soon as we can.
“We’re going to be looking at where we’ve got to around the 15th of February, when we hope to have vaccinated about 15 million people in the priority groups. Daily we are looking to the data. and trying to work out when we need to lift the restrictions.”
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, posted on social media on Monday: “We cannot delay the re-opening of schools beyond Easter — it would be a catastrophe for a generation, especially the poorest. Vaccination of staff, testing of children, prioritisation of regions, ages and demographics — everything must be done to re-start.”
The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has accused Boris Johnson of defeatism. She warned as early as last November that a generation of the poorest children might never recover from the “cruel blow” of the pandemic. The chair of the education select committee, Robert Halfon, told Sky News: “We need to get children learning again, with clarity from the Department for Education and an educational route-map out of the coronavirus.
“The engine of government should be directed toward opening our schools. We face an epidemic of educational poverty and mental health otherwise.”
Marsh Baldon C of E Primary School in Oxford, has 45 per cent of its pupils still going daily into school: children of key workers and others deemed vulnerable at home. The head teacher, Becky Harris, told the World at One on BBC Radio 4 on Monday that her teachers and teaching assistants were working on several levels to continue pupils’ education.
“Teachers planning a lesson are doing some on paper for those who can’t access digital resources at home; some online; and some live in the classroom. It’s delivered as live learning if the children at home have the technology and can access it at that pace. The work is the same but not necessarily accessed at the same time. . .
“We do live lessons because we believe the children need that contact, that impetus to get out of bed in the morning and get dressed, to get ready to start the day, in direct communication with their teacher, who has an expectation of them,” she said.
Ms Harris said that she would be “devastated” if school could not open after Easter. “But I don’t think it would be right to open up after half-term if the infection rates are as high as they are at the moment. Lateral flow testing will be starting, and we’re keen to get that up as soon as possible.”
The big unknown is still whether those who have been vaccinated can still transmit the infection. Paul Hunter, Professor of Medicine at the University of East Anglia, told the BBC that the virus had spread across Europe more rapidly when the schools were open, perhaps from students who, although asymptomatic, took the infection home.
“If we do something too soon and things start kicking off again, we would certainly see more preventable deaths than if we had held off for a little bit longer. Around half term, perhaps begin opening up some junior schools. I’m sure it won’t go on much beyond this term.”