Reopening schools: experts urge caution as government aims for March return

Boris Johnson and an empty classroom
Jasmine Norden

Conservative MPs have called for schools to open from 8 March, though unions and medical professionals doubt the safety of this plan.

A group of MPs, calling themselves the COVID Recovery Group, have written to the prime minister to call for schools to open in March, as well as for hospitality venues to open by Easter.

The letter, signed by 63 MPs, said:

First, the “national priority” of reopening all schools to all pupils must be achieved by 8 March. Every hour of classroom learning lost harms the nation’s children and the schools shutdown is having a huge impact on children’s health and welfare.

On 14 February, Dominic Raab appeared on Andrew Marr, saying that the government aimed to open schools in March, though no specific date has been confirmed yet. However, he later declined to specify a date for the easing of lockdown restrictions.

Scientists and unions have set out plans for the return to school, with many advising a more cautious approach.

The current situation

Currently, the coronavirus (Covid-19) R number is between 0.7 and 0.9. When below 1, the number of people being infected is no longer growing. 88,060 people tested positive for the virus over the last seven days, and 4,598 people died within 28 days of a positive test. The pandemic has caused more than 110,000 deaths in total since March 2020.

However, as of 15 February, more than 15 million people have received their first dose of a vaccine. Additionally, vaccines have been offered to everyone in the top four priority groups.

Despite this, scientists have said opening all schools at the same time would leave the R number at risk of rising to above 1 again.

A safe return

Independent SAGE, a group of scientists who’ve been analysing the data, called for a national lockdown with schools closed on 30 December. The group acknowledged, though, that schools should be a priority for reopening “given the lifelong economic and psychological harms of closure which fall particularly on deprived and vulnerable groups”.

Independent SAGE has set put a comprehensive outline for how schools can return safely. Within the consultation, it wrote that reopening:

should not be tied to arbitrary dates but be based on explicit public health criteria.

In general terms, schools should open as soon as it is possible to do so without leading to an overall loss of control of infection rates.

Independent SAGE’s plan works at the local authority level, employing different levels of safeguards depending on case rates in an area. It outlined measures including phased returns, with half of all pupils online and half on-site to maintain social distancing, in areas where transmission remains high.

The group also called for consideration of priority vaccination for teachers after current priority groups are all vaccinated, as well as swift action to combat the educational and mental health consequences of the pandemic.

Protecting teachers and students

The National Education Union (NEU) has set out its own roadmap for the return to schools. Within the plan, the NEU wrote that any return preparations “must accept that a full return by all students may not be possible for some time”.

The plan urged ministers to take action to make schools “Covid-secure” before reopening. Recommendations included making social distancing more achievable by limiting people on site, increasing ventilation and mask use, and making teachers a vaccine priority.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said:

We all want schools and colleges to be fully open again, but this needs to be properly planned with measures in place to address the problems already encountered and to ensure a safe and sustained return. Plans also need to be in place for remote learning. …

Unions, school leaders, teachers and staff are tired of last-minute guidance and u-turns. Families, also, have been stung once too often by false hope.

She added:

Simply declaring schools and colleges Covid-secure does not make them so. With a death toll of 100,000 a stark reminder of the seriousness of our situation, and with no clear way out of lockdown, it is incumbent on Boris Johnson to finally change tack.

Featured image via Flickr/Allison Meier & Wikimedia Commons/Foreign and Commonwealth Office

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