As the country moves on from the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak, the issue of when and how schools should re-open is dividing the nation. Many parents and teaching professionals hold views which are fundamentally opposed to each other, and finding a solution which satisfies everyone will not be easy. The most recent government announcement suggests that schools will open at the earliest on 1st June, and will begin with children in Reception and Year 1 classes, along with Year 6. However, not everyone is convinced.
There are valid arguments in favour of a phased re-opening of schools:
- Children need, and feed off, interaction with other children. Group play and learning are essential to their development.
- It is not fair or right to keep children locked up indoors for such a length of time. They need regular fresh air and exercise. Not all households have easy access to an outside play area.
- Children from poorer and less-educated households will fall behind if they are denied proper schooling. Many households also have limited access to laptops or computers.
- Many parents have found home schooling to be problematic.
- The decision to award exam grades based on mock exams and previous course work denies children the chance to “catch up” on their grades by revising hard for exams.
- Studies show that healthy children contract the coronavirus at a much lower rate than older people or those with underlying health issues.
- Getting children back to school will free up their parents from childcare and help to get the economy moving.
- Many vulnerable children are not being monitored as closely as they would be at school, where teachers fulfil an essential role in spotting signs of abuse or mental issues.
Those arguing against the re-opening of schools do so principally on the issues of health and safety:
- It will be impossible to impose social distancing restrictions on young children.
- Children may be less likely to contract Covid-19 themselves but could easily pass the virus on to family members.
- Teachers and other school staff will be more vulnerable to catching coronavirus and spreading the disease.
- It will be unsafe to mark school books as these may carry the virus.
- Returning pupils will need to be taught in smaller class sizes to ensure safe distancing, leading to teaching resources being taken away from other children who are still being schooled at home.
- It will be difficult to ensure social distancing at break times, in school canteens, staff rooms, and at school gates.
Unfortunately, as with most discussions surrounding the Covid-19 outbreak, there is no right or wrong answer. At present there can be no guarantee that pupils and school staff will not come into contact with the coronavirus if they return to school, and for this reason many parents will not risk sending their children back. The National Education Union, Britain’s largest teaching union, is against re-opening schools until the safety of pupils and staff can be assured, and some councils say they will defy the government and refuse to allow schools to re-open. Clearly not all schools are the same, whether it is in the physical size of their classrooms, number of pupils, or access to other areas which could be re-purposed as temporary classrooms. Schools need to be assessed individually, with Head Teachers and staff making decisions on the spacing of desks and other measures to keep pupils and staff away from each other.
There can be no such thing as absolute safety when it comes to re-opening parts of society, whether it is businesses, transport, high street shops, or schools. At best, the government must assess the risk and minimise the potential consequences of any course of action, based on the best scientific advice. The UK has the advantage of being 2-3 weeks behind other countries in re-opening schools, including 22 European Union states and Australia, and we are able to benefit from their experiences. Studies in these countries show that re-opening schools has not significantly increased the rate of infection amongst children.
The question of when to re-open schools is complicated and will be influenced by many factors over the coming weeks. Even now some scientists are disputing the arbitrary date of 1st June as the start date, saying that until the country has a satisfactory and workable contact tracing system in place it is simply too risky. Just how the government navigates its way through this minefield of contradictory needs and opinions is yet another challenge for it – and of course parents – to face.
Bretherton Law’s experienced Family and Child Law Solicitors have been helping people with changes in their circumstances for over 50 years. We are members of Resolution and Accredited in Family and Children Law by the Law Society. For honest, sympathetic advice call Atifha Aftab on 01727 869293, or request an appointment by using the form below.