Schools could stay shut until summer, Children's Commissioner warns

There is a ‘real danger’ schools will stay closed until the summer, the Children’s Commissioner has warned.

Anne Longfield said a ‘lack of planning’ has made this ‘inevitable’ as she called on ministers to create a roadmap for reopening schools.

Her report came as Boris Johnson said they will ‘look at’ the idea of reopening classrooms in areas where the virus is less prevalent.

When England’s latest lockdown was announced, the Prime Minister said it was his hope that coronavirus levels would be sufficiently reduced for schools to fully reopen around the middle of February.

But as coronavirus continues to rage across the country, reports have suggested they may not reopen until after Easter at the earliest, with the PM refusing to rule out further delays.

Ms Longfield published her report ‘Roadmap to reopening schools’ online yesterday, explaining how kids might get back into classrooms, which are only open to vulnerable children or those whose parents are key workers.

She said: ‘Unfortunately it is a lot easier to close schools than to reopen them.

‘Everyone recognises the necessity of reopening schools as soon as possible, but hope alone will not make it happen. What is lacking is a clear roadmap towards this.

‘There is a real danger that schools will remain closed until Easter at the earliest, or even into the summer – not because the virus makes this inevitable, but because of a lack of planning.

‘The exam question that needs to be asked at the top of government is: how many children of what age could return when and where, under what level of community transmission; and what should we do now to facilitate that?

‘This should be the subject of daily briefings and meetings as part of the No 10 and Cabinet Office Covid response.

‘SAGE can provide modelling of different options – and at the end of this note we suggest what evidence would be helpful – but ultimately it is for government to think creatively about what those different options might be, explore all possibilities, come up with a plan, and ultimately make something happen.’

Ms Longfield then gave some options for a gradual reopening, such as returning certain year groups sooner than others, and on a rota basis.

The commissioner said teachers should be prioritised for vaccines and ‘effective testing’ rolled out in schools.

A ‘turbo-charged’ programme to help children catch up would also be needed when they eventually return to classrooms, with funding for additional tutoring to bridge the knowledge gap left by the pandemic, she added.

During last night’s coronavirus briefing, Mr Johnson said the Government will want to look ‘very carefully’ at data on the rollout of the vaccination programme before announcing a timetable for reopening schools.

He added that getting primary school children back into class remains a ‘top priority’ when looking at reopening schools.

His comments came after Public Health England (PHE) concluded that transmission of Covid in primary schools was ‘extremely low’ and outbreaks were rare during the autumn term.

The PHE study found a ‘very low risk’ of infection in students and staff in primary schools, but it said similar studies were needed in secondary schools where the risks of infection are likely to be different.

Dr Shamez Ladhani, a PHE consultant paediatrician and study lead, said: ‘Schools should be the first setting to reopen when it is safe to do so, and we are carefully monitoring the data.’

Conservative MPs have called for schools to be reopened after the February half-term in areas where Covid infection rates are low.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said the Government will be led by the science when making decisions about ‘moving away from the lockdown conditions’.

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