The Guardian view on keeping schools open: not an open and shut case | Editorial

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The Guardian view on keeping schools open: not an open and shut case | Editorial

There is perhaps no area of life and public policy that more clearly illustrates the double-edged nature of decision-making during the pandemic than education. While businesses face huge difficulties that are only surmountable if the government provides sufficient compensation, the issue for schools is that there is simply no way to make up to children for months of lost learning, and time away from teachers and peers. For university students and their families too, a phase of life that should be all about expanding horizons has in some cases seen walls closing in – quite literally at universities including Manchester Metropolitan, where 1,700 students were told to self-isolate.

But while it is quite right that schools being open is seen as a priority, the harm that would be caused by sending children home again should not blind anyone to the risks of keeping them in crowded classrooms. On Thursday, shops, offices and nearly all other buildings in England where people congregate – apart from health settings – will empty for safety reasons (different rules apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland, while a 17-day “firebreak” in Wales, which included the closure of schools to all pupils in year 9 and above, ends next week).

In his chaotic television appearance on Saturday, Boris Johnson remembered to say that he was “extremely grateful” to teachers for their dedication. But the government has set out no clear rationale for why it believes that, unlike in the spring and summer, it is safe for schools to remain open to almost all. So far, the National Education Union is the only union to have called for schools to be included in the new month-long lockdown – a demand backed by some scientists and politicians, including the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham. But other unions, including the National Association of Head Teachers, are also concerned that the number of secondary-school pupils infected with the virus has increased by a factor of 50 since the start of September, to 2%.

Unwelcome as such figures may be, to parents and everyone who cares about children’s lives and prospects, they make it hard to see how the current policy of “keep calm and carry on” makes sense. As Wales and Scotland have shown, there are alternatives to shutting down schools to all but a handful of children (those of key workers and those defined as vulnerable), as was done in March.

From this week, older pupils and teachers in Scotland must wear masks. Rotas or “blended” learning arrangements, where pupils take turns to attend school and otherwise study online from home, are options worth considering. Another is keeping primaries open while shutting secondaries temporarily. Yet ministers seem unable or unwilling to enter into a sensible discussion of these possibilities. That there are still no contingency plans in place for next year’s GCSEs and A-levels beyond a three-week delay, when anyone can see that further disruption is likely, is a dereliction of ministerial duty.

As with universities, part of the problem is a lack of trust. Everyone wants young people to be educated. Many people are extremely concerned by the prospect of educational inequalities widening as a result of the pandemic. But just as lecturers and some students believe universities were unduly influenced by their need for fees, in deciding to go ahead with face-to-face tuition, so teachers and some parents are now losing confidence in ministers’ approach to schools. Yet again, this government’s poor planning and inability to communicate are making a difficult situation unnecessarily worse.