Education plays a crucial role in the development of a child. We know it is the most significant factor in improving social mobility and provides immeasurable social and emotional benefits. The school building also acts as a safety net for some of Burnley and Padiham’s most vulnerable children and it’s why I believe it is of paramount important that we get children back to school, but only as and when it is safe to do so.
On 23 March 2020 education and childcare settings were instructed to close to all children except those in priority groups (vulnerable children and children of critical workers). With significant progress made in reducing the transmission of Coronavirus, the Prime Minister set out plans for a phased reopening of schools and educational settings.
From 1 June national guidance was that primary schools in England may welcome back children in key transition years; nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6. And secondary schools, sixth form and further education colleges were also asked to offer some face-to-face support to supplement the remote education of year 10 and year 12 students who are due to take key exams next year, alongside the full time provision they are offering to priority groups. The Director of Public Health in Lancashire has also now confirmed that schools can begin this phased return.
As the Prime Minister said, progress will continue to be monitored, and schools will only undertake this phased reopening if the five key tests set by the Government justify the changes at the time. These include:
- Making sure the NHS can cope
- A 'sustained and consistent' fall in the daily death rate
- Rate of infection decreasing to 'manageable levels'
- Ensuring supply of tests and PPE can meet future demand
- Being confident any adjustments would not risk a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS
Keeping children and staff safe has been the upmost priority for Ministers in making decisions about opening schools for more children, but I also appreciate that teachers and parents may have concerns about these plans.
It is very welcome that the latest scientific advice indicated that more children were able to return to school from 1 June, and is why the Government asked schools to start preparing for that. But it is still important to continue to limit overall numbers in school and introduce protective measures to prevent transmission. Simple measures such as keeping children and young people within their own groups, frequent cleaning and utilisation of outside spaces will all be put in place to further avoid risks.
An overview of the latest scientific information can be viewed online at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/885631/Overview_of_scientific_advice_and_information_on_coronavirus_COVID19.pdf which I trust you will find useful.
It is difficult to imagine many topics more pressing than the education and development of our children. Please do rest assured that when any decision is made on when to welcome additional groups of children and young people back into schools, keeping both them and staff safe is, and always will be, my utmost priority.
It is also vitally important that as we take these steps, eligibility for testing is expanded so those with symptoms can find out if they have the virus. That is why I very much welcome the enormous work done by Government and laboratories to expand testing to everyone with symptoms. This, combined with the contact tracing app which will be launched soon, asymptomatic testing and antibody testing, will help us keep the spread of the virus down as we take steps to adapt to a world with Coronavirus.
Like many during this period, I was not able to attend my place of work for some time, with MP’s instead conducting business through a hybrid, virtual Parliament. From 2 June, however, I voted for Parliament to return, to coincide with the potential lifting of restrictions, allowing certain school children to return to education. It is only right that as your representative I lead by example and so I too returned to my primary place of work. And I did this not just because it was the right thing to do, but because we need to start to adapt to this new normal.
The Government's Covid-Secure guidelines will help all kinds of premises adapt to limit the spread. And Staying Alert means we all make changes to our own habits so we can start to move forwards, not only with children going to school and us all going to work, but also being able to see our loved ones and friends. We cannot, and must not, allow this virus to take over everything we hold dear.
Why schools closed?
As part of the national social distancing measures to limit the spread of coronavirus, the Government had to limit the number of children and young people attending educational and childcare settings to ensure that pupils and staff attending could do so safely. That is why, since the 23rd March, education and childcare settings have only been open to priority groups.
The closure of schools helped to reduce social interactions and played an essential role in severing remaining contacts between household, and this ensured transmission rates (the R number) declined.
The Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Witty explained that schools were “not dangerous” for children during the pandemic but that the decision to close them would slow the rise of infections. The priority in responding to Covid-19 is the safety of the public and to ensure the NHS isn’t overwhelmed.
The peak of the virus occurred on the 8th April – two weeks after schools closed and the infection rate has reduced considerably since that date.
The NHS was not overwhelmed during the peak and the number of cases continues to fall.
Why schools need to reopen?
During this period the most disadvantaged pupils are at most risk of a widening attainment gap. Our teachers are working in creative ways to support parents and pupils in home learning, but there is an almost complete loss of formal school education for children while at home.
Families across the country are going through enormous difficulties, whether that be due to the stress and fear of living through a pandemic, worried for loved one or financial strains. Returning children, in a controlled, phased and safe manner will help to instil routine and a degree of normality, however, I must stress, if the data says it is not safe, schools will not re-open.
What does the science say?
The peak of the virus occurred on the 8th of April, about two weeks after schools closed, and the infection rate has reduced considerably since that date.
The experts say there is virtually no risk to the children or teachers and that is the experience of countries who have kept their schools open. The World Health Organisation’s chief scientist said that children are at “very low risk” of becoming ill from the disease and children are “less capable” of spreading the disease. Likewise, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer has backed the reopening, conditional on the rate of infection continuing to reduce.
We cannot stall the reopening of schools if the science and data report it’s safe for them to attend, especially considering the cost it will have to children’s health and wellbeing. We must balance the risk and value.
Why the youngest year groups first?
Early stages are least able to use online learning. Year 6 is a critical transition year and with no school for 5/6 months it is a giant leap to then expected these students to jump to high school in September.
How will schools be able to social distance?
Although there are logistical challenges the guidance sets out how schools will be able to introduce ‘bubbles’ of up to 15 pupils and a teacher. The bubble will act as an extension of the child’s household. The idea is that by minimising mixing as much as possible in the school setting, we will be able to reduce cross contamination. This will keep children and teachers as safe as possible.
Why it is safe for children to go to school but not see extended family members?
The Government guidance requires no household mixing. That was the advice at the peak. Key workers have had to continue to work but to supress the virus, most of us have had to stay at home, and we have seen virus transmission reduce accordingly.
As we start to come out of lockdown, we need to choose some new interactions. School closures are impacting children’s emotional wellbeing and future life chance. Education is incredibly important and is why it is the first phase of carefully considered interaction.
Social interactions, such as mixing household, should still be kept to a minimum. We will see our family at some point but we are choosing interaction amongst children as a first step, based on the science and the damage that not doing so would cause.
Will I be forced to send my child to school?
Parents won’t be forced to send children to school and no fines will be issued. However, if your child falls into the groups that have been told can return then I would urge you to take the advice. Those in the extremely vulnerable list won’t be expected to do so.
What are other countries doing?
Whilst we have some of the very best scientific and medical minds in the UK it is useful to see how other countries are currently responding. Children are going back to school in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and Belgium. They have adopted similar strategies and we are not alone in this approach.
What is the R rate now and what if it goes up?
The R rate shows the rate of infection and how fast the virus is spreading. This is an estimate made by Sage (the scientific advisory group on epidemics) and is currently thought to be between 0.7-1. If it goes above 1 we may need to reintroduce restrictions (subject to whether they're localised or across the country) and if it comes down we can ease some measures.
This figure is critical in decisions about whether children will go back to school. They will only go do so if it remains low and the roadmap makes this clear; date and plans may change.
You can use the following link to see the current R rate. This will be updated weekly, with the latest alert level.