Schools and nurseries should be last to close in future coronavirus lockdowns, government told
Schools must be last to close in future lockdowns, Children's Commissioner says (Credit: PA)
Schools and nurseries should be the last to close in any future coronavirus lockdowns, the Children's Commissioner has said.
In a new briefing released on Wednesday, Anne Longfield said classrooms should have their doors shut only once all other options have been exhausted.
And she urged ministers to put education ahead of pubs and shops and ensure children are "at the heart of planning for any future coronavirus lockdowns", including making sure all are back in school in September.
Schools minister Nick Gibb said the Government was "moving away from these sort of national decisions about pubs versus schools".
Ms Longfield also urged the Government to consider holding press conferences aimed at children – with youngsters encouraged to submit questions – to help tackle the issues some may face after a prolonged period outside the classroom.
“Too often during the first lockdown, children were an afterthought," she said.
"Despite the welcome decision to keep schools open for vulnerable children, too few attended.
"Those schools that did bring back more children before the summer holidays often found classes were only half full. That must change in September.
“The Government’s promise that all children will be back to school after the summer holidays is a step in the right direction. However, if a second wave occurs, children must be at the heart of coronavirus planning.
"That means schools must be the first to reopen and the last to close during any local lockdowns. Regular testing must be also in place for teachers and pupils, to reassure parents."
If a choice must be made in a local area whether to keep pubs and restaurants or schools open, schools must always take priority, she added, stressing that scientific evidence points towards young children being among the lowest risk in terms of transmission of the virus.
The Commissioner also called on the Department for Education to step up its efforts to make sure all children have access to proper home-schooling equipment by expanding its laptop programme, so that children in all year groups who need them can receive devices and 4G Wi-Fi routers quickly.
"Consideration should also be given to the impact on those children expected to take exams next summer so that these children are not disadvantaged, especially in the case of extended local lockdowns," the briefing adds.
Responding to the report on Wednesday morning, schools minister Nick Gibb told BBC Breakfast: “We're moving away from these sort of national decisions about pubs versus schools.
“What we're saying is all schools will be open in September for all pupils, and we're now looking locally at when we when we impose new restrictions, they will be locally-imposed and they will depend on the local circumstances.”
The GMB union warned the Government was storing up a "monumental crisis" for the months ahead if it failed to act on the warning.
National Secretary Rehana Azam said: “What's abundantly clear is the Government doesn't have a grip on handling Covid-19.
"Months on, we are still awaiting a credible plan for a workable contact tracing system to be put in place. There remains little evidence ministers are on top of this.
“GMB, like many others, are keen to get schools fully reopened we fear without a proper test and trace system and proper safe systems of work the government is stacking up a monumental crisis in the month ahead.”
Meanwhile the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils across England, said any decision to close schools again must be based on scientific advice.
Cllr Teresa Heritage, vice-chairman of the LGA's Children and Young People Board, said: “We know that many children will have been out of school for up to six months, which will have an impact on their mental wellbeing and development, and we support the Children’s Commissioner’s calls to keep schools open for as long as is possible.
"Councils have been working closely with schools throughout the coronavirus pandemic to ensure they remain open for vulnerable children and families, and where needed, councils have delivered vital IT equipment for children.
“As we look to return to normal from September, councils will continue to work with all schools and local partners but it will be essential that councils have the capacity and necessary data to play their full part in the test and trace programme."
Ms Longfield's briefing argues that the results of testing on teachers and students should be pooled with attendance data to model risks of transmission and test effective strategies for minimising risk.
"Any outbreak in a school should be thoroughly investigated so that potential links in the chain of transmission can be pre-emptively broken in future," it adds.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: "Getting all children back into the classroom, full-time at the start of next month is a national priority, as this is the best place for them to be.
“We have always been and will continue to be guided by the best scientific and medical advice, and our detailed guidance sets out protective measures for schools to implement ahead of a full return in September.”