FOR children and parents alike, school closures have become the new normal. Parents are juggling their jobs whilst playing the roles of teacher, teaching assistant, cook and cleaner. Or not, as the case may be. Some children are ‘remote learning’, staring at screens all day. Many are not even doing that. In Portugal the prime minister banned private schools from teaching remotely in the name of equality, or equal suffering. If not everyone can get it, no one can. It’s called levelling down.
Here, Boris Johnson announced last week that he ‘hoped’ schools would reopen at the earliest on March 8. Don’t clear the dining table of school books just yet, then. Johnson emphasised it will be a phased reopening, depending on vaccination rates, infection rates and hospital admissions.
This comes after we were told on January 4 (the very day that primary schools reopened after the Christmas holidays) that schools would remain closed and be reopened after February half term.
The government said they based their decision on surging cases of a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, a strain that is said to be ‘highly’ transmissible and ‘may be more deadly’ than the original virus. The threat of legal action against the government by teaching unions may have helped them come to their decision.
It probably was helped too by the fact that it’s not just UK schools that have closed again. Across the world, the same pattern has emerged. According to UNESCO, globally more than 800million pupils have been affected by partial or full school closures since Covid-19 emerged.
At the peak of the first wave of the epidemic, the week of April 20-26 2020, 90 per cent of primary and 100 per cent of secondary schools were closed in all 31 countries of the EU/EEA including the UK. Schools stayed closed in many countries until June when some were partially reopened when the restrictions were relaxed. Most students, though, did not return until September 2020.
In this new round of closures, some countries including Germany, Austria, Denmark and Ireland decided not to reopen their schools after the Christmas holidays. Italy delayed the reopening of secondary schools until January 11 with primary schools reopening as planned. It’s worth highlighting that Italy’s schools remained closed for nearly six months in 2020, the longest of any European country.
Not all European countries have surrendered: Switzerland, Belgium and Sweden have bucked the trend. France, too, has decided for now to keep schools open. On December 20, education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said: ‘The situation has shown that there was no particular infection in schools.’ The Macron government has reiterated that schools are safe.
The opinion of France’s health council is that children are less likely to become infected with Covid-19 and to pass it on to adults. However, France did have restrictions in place when schools reopened. Children aged six and above and adults have had to wear face coverings in schools at all times. In the UK, restrictions were not as stringent, with only year 7 and above pupils told to wear face coverings and only in communal areas, not in the classroom.
A European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) report concludes that children are much less likely to contract the virus. In fact, fewer than 5 per cent of Covid cases are reported in EU/EEA and the UK among children (aged 18 and under).
Just as important, the report states that children are less likely to transmit the virus to adults. For a survey in which 15 European countries took part, ten replied that they did not have strong indications of child-to-adult transmission, whether in schools or other settings in their country.
In Sweden, where there were no school closures for children aged 16 and under, the Public Health Authority found that teachers were at no higher risk of Covid-19, countering the claim that teachers are at higher risk of contracting the virus from their pupils.
There’s no doubt school closures have disrupted the daily lives of families. Laura Perrins reported on the scale of damage yesterday in TCW.
It’s in no child’s best interest to sit for hours in front of a screen. Forbidden from interacting with their peers and taking part in any organised extracurricular group activity, the social and emotional development of children has been stunted.
According to Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, one in six children in the UK have mental health issues brought on by the pandemic and school closures. She has strongly urged the government to work on a road map for the reopening of schools.
The ECDC report stated that school closures should be used only as a measure of last resort. As a country, did we reach that level of last resort? Are schools really Covid hotspots and are our children the super-spreaders? I find no hard evidence to tell me so. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, stated that school closures have caused a ‘generational catastrophe’. I find it very hard not to agree with him.