Schools must come before pubs in lockdown plans

Anne Longfield has said that schools should be the last places to be locked down if any local or national lockdown takes place, after pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops.

The Children’s Commissioner for England has published a new briefing setting out the key actions needed to ensure children are at the heart of planning for any future coronavirus lockdowns, including making sure all children are back in school in September.

Longfield says that the scientific argument for keeping educational settings open is strongest for nurseries, followed by primary schools, followed by secondary schools. But once the wider social costs of school closures are factored in, it is clear that all schools should be kept open as far as possible, and only closed as a last resort once other options have been exhausted.

The latest briefing also calls for regular testing of pupils and teachers, which will become particularly important in next academic year’s winter flu season when clusters of flu could be mistaken for a coronavirus outbreak and result in unnecessary closure or interruption. 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.

The Children’s Commissioner says that if schools do have to close they must remain open for children of keyworkers and vulnerable children as before the summer holidays. This latter group of children should be renamed ‘priority children’ and a concerted effort must be made to work with these families to increase their child’s attendance.

With evidence of a rise in mental health issues among certain children because of the lockdown, Longfield also calls for local NHS mental health teams to work with schools to provide advice and support to prevent problems.

She said: “Too often during the first lockdown, children were an afterthought. 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 the choice has to be made in a local area about whether to keep pubs or schools open, then schools must always take priority.”