It’s September again and schools are finally back in session, after 18 months of the greatest logistical challenges modern education has ever seen.
But schools are facing lingering problems arising from the Government’s desire to return to a pre-Covid world.
The only consistency in Government guidance for schools over the past year and a half has been its inconsistency. Ministers’ advice on how schools should deal with Covid has yo-yoed and educators have had to adapt constantly.
In August, Dr Jenny Harries wrote to families to say that children the Government once classed as especially vulnerable to Covid were, as if by magic, no longer considered vulnerable. All of these children must now attend school in person.
This is despite a worrying lack of Covid safety measures. For the new academic year, schools no longer need to do any contact tracing, no one is required to wear face masks and for most school-age children, the Covid vaccine programme has yet to start.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that schools may now be the least Covid-safe places in the country. SAGE, the Government’s own expert advisors, are expecting “exponential increases” of Covid in school children.
These are the facts. They pose serious questions for every family. But for families with health conditions, the effect of the Government’s new rules is far worse. Either they risk prosecution by keeping their child at home to protect their health or the health of a family member, or they risk a loved one’s life by sending their kids to school.
We already know of one case in which an immunosuppressed parent was criminally prosecuted for their child’s absence from school.
Other parents tell us they’ve been bullied by schools worried about attendance figures into deregistering their child, leaving them without formal education and causing enormous strain to family life.
We passionately believe the best place for children is in school. But managing a world with Covid in it is complex – and the stakes could not be higher. The Government must acknowledge that some families have health vulnerabilities. We can’t just wish those complexities away.
We want the Government to mitigate the risk of Covid outbreaks in schools. They could do this by requiring that pupils self-isolate if they come into close contact with someone who has tested positive, doing on-site testing, and funding schools to improve ventilation.
But in particular, we want the education secretary, Gavin Williamson to improve the guidance for local authorities and schools, so they know how to support parents with vulnerable family members to make decisions about what is best for them.
That guidance needs to make clear that, during the transition period, it will sometimes be right for schools to support children to learn from home. This is particularly the case for vulnerable children who are, in light of recent advice from the JCVI, now awaiting a vaccine.
It needs to be clear that parents who make reasonable decisions about what is in their family’s best interests should be supported, not threatened with fines or prosecution. And it should provide for the continuation of online schooling for a limited number of especially vulnerable families – through additional funding from Government.
But most of all, it should be clear that it is wrong for schools to put attendance figures ahead of children’s best interests by encouraging parents, sometimes by threat, to take their children off the school roll. That is the very opposite of proper provision – and a responsible secretary of state should make that very clear.
The bottom line is that children can become infected with COVID-19. They can play a significant role in spreading the virus to their wider communities. Some children who catch COVID-19 do develop severe symptoms, and up to one in seven still have long Covid symptoms up to four months later. While death or severe illness is unlikely, it is certainly possible – particularly for vulnerable children.
Covid has not gone away, despite what the Government would like to think. More must be done to make schools safe while the pandemic continues.