Keeping Schools Open In Lockdown Has Polarised The UK. Here's What The Experts Say

Parents, teachers, unions and politicians all have strong views about whether schools should shut. Read these arguments before you decide.

The calendar might say November.

But, following the announcement from Boris Johnson that England is going into a full-on lockdown from Thursday, in many ways it feels like we’re back in March.

In a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus – which has once again spiralled out of control – pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops will shut their doors until at least December 2.

Meanwhile, people will once again be told to stay at home and banned from mixing with people outside their household or bubble.

But there is one big difference between the forthcoming lockdown and the restrictions enforced back in March.

In the spring, it was only vulnerable children and the kids of key workers who were able to go into school – everyone else was taught at home, or that was the idea.

This time around, schools will remain open for all students.

The move has triggered fierce debate between teaching unions, parents and scientists, with some arguing that children’s education must be the priority and others saying it will undermine the success of the lockdown.

Not sure what to think? Here’s what the key players say.

What does the government say about schools remaining open?

Prime minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus
Prime minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus

It was announced by the prime minister on Saturday night that schools would remain open for all pupils during the second lockdown.

In the government’s guidelines about the upcoming month-long set of restrictions, it says that ministers will keep schools open “to prioritise the well being and long-term futures of our young people”.

“It remains very important for children and young people to attend, to support their wellbeing and education and help working parents and guardians,” the advice reads.

“Senior clinicians still advise that school is the best place for children to be, and so they should continue to go to school. Schools have implemented a range of protective measures to make them safe.”

The government has also argued that, with exams set to go ahead next summer, schools need to keep their doors open to make sure they get that pupils get all the support they need to get their qualifications.

What data do we have about schools and the spread of Covid-19?

Each week, Public Health England (PHE) logs the places that people who have tested positive for Covid-19 went before they started showing symptoms, to try to work out where they were infected.

If more than two cases are associated with a location, it’s counted as a “common exposure” – what you and I would probably call an outbreak.

Between October 19 and October 25, secondary schools accounted for 6.8% of all “common exposure” incidents in England, while primary schools made up 5.7%. In total, that’s 12.5%.

That is the highest total figure, closely followed by supermarkets (11.2%), pubs and bars (7.4%) and restaurants and cafes (7.0%).

How many visits?

PHE has admitted that it hasn’t made adjustments for how often a location is visited in its outbreak data. That means that locations with more visits are more likely to be identified as the sites of common exposures. So how many visits are there to schools and supermarkets?

In 2012, England contained 24,372 schools, with more than 8.2m pupils.

It’s surprisingly hard to find an average number of supermarket visits in England, but to give some idea of the scale, UK shoppers made an *extra* 79m grocery shopping trips in the four weeks before lockdown, according to Nielsen, on top of their normal visits. That accounted for a 20.5% jump in sales, suggesting the normal figure may be something like 400m visits every four weeks.

By contrast, if every schoolchild “visits” school five times a week, that’s about 165m “visits” in four weeks.

These are ballpark figures, but if supermarkets are producing more visits than schools, yet schools are generating more outbreaks, that suggests schools really are key places for infection to spread.

That could be because people spend longer in schools than supermarkets, and mix more closely with each other.

What do scientists think?

inside of a classroom in kindergarten with small chairs and tables
inside of a classroom in kindergarten with small chairs and tables
ChiccoDodiFC via Getty Images

On Monday, Andrew Hayward – a professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at UCL – warned that there is “substantial transmission” of coronavirus within secondary schools in particular.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are of course needing to prioritise education and we know that children who are infected in schools are very unlikely to have severe consequences.

“But I think one of the consequences of not closing secondary schools would be that we may need to be in lockdown for longer than we might otherwise have to be.”

But Dr Zubaida Haque, a member of the Independent Sage group of scientists, said that while the lockdown could have to go on longer to accommodate keeping schools open, schools were not to blame.

“The lockdown will not be longer because of schools,” she told HuffPost UK.

“It will be longer because the government wasted close to six weeks before they took action. They wasted time and dithered with local tiers, even though this is a national crisis.

“That’s why this will take longer. Arguably it may take a bit longer than four weeks because schools are open as well. But we can’t have schools closed for a month.”

It must not be forgotten that children have already missed six months of in-person schooling, Haque said.

“That is unprecedented,” she said. “That is a long time to miss school and we know that has [...] had an impact on children’s ability to learn, especially on children from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Research by the educational charity The Sutton Trust found that in the most deprived schools, 15% of teachers said more than a third of their students would not have adequate access to a laptop or tablet to do lessons from home.

Meanwhile, these teachers were worried that a similar number of their pupils would not have good enough internet access.

“The negative impact [of school closures] – the educational impact, the psychological impact, the mental health impact – on children has been enormous,” Haque added.

What do teaching unions say?

Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

The National Education Union, on the other hand, has demanded that the government must close schools and colleges during lockdown, warning that ministers have failed “heads, teachers, support staff, parents and pupils” by “cutting corners and taking half-measures on Covid”.

“We have seen a 50-fold increase in infections in secondary schools alone since September,” said the union’s joint general secretary Kevin Courtney, referring to ONS data that suggested around 1% of primary school students and 2% of secondary school students have coronavirus.

“Schools, clearly, are an engine for virus transmission. The lockdown would be much more effective in reducing virus levels if schools and colleges were a part of it.”

According to the NEU, more than 150,000 teachers and support staff have backed its campaign to close schools to all pupils, except those who are vulnerable or the children of key workers.

Meanwhile, the NASUWT teachers’ union has urged the government to publish the evidence “upon which it is relying to insist that keeping schools open fully will not impact adversely on children, their families, those working in schools”.

It has also argued that keeping schools open must not undermine the impact of the lockdown in bringing down Covid-19 rates.

“The government will need to do more in the coming days to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected at this critical time,” said NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach.

“Ministers have said that people should work from home where possible and that those who have underlying health conditions or who are most at risk from the coronavirus should stay at home.

“The same protections now need to be introduced urgently for those working in schools and colleges as apply to workers in other sectors.”

What does the children’s commissioner think?

The children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has welcomed the news that schools will remain open during lockdown.

Longfield, whose role is to promote and protect children’s rights, wrote on Twitter: “We’ve always said that schools should be the last to shut & first to open.

“It would be a disaster for children’s well-being and education if they were to close.”

She added: “The fact schools are able to stay open is testament to the fantastic work schools and teachers have taken to make schools Covid secure.

“Our survey of children showed children were delighted to be back at school, felt safe, and understood all the rules.”

How are parents feeling?

Images By Tang Ming Tung via Getty Images

The issue about whether or not children should be in schools during the second lockdown has also left parents divided.

Despite being “all for” school closures during the first lockdown, Valerie Fox – who lives in west London – is “completely against” schools closing over November after watching her children’s health, mental health and education “plummet” over spring.

“It massively affected their learning,” the 34-year-old said. “Even though I do not work and could stay home and had all the time in the world to help them, I’m still not a qualified teacher.

“So I can only imagine the stress for a full-time working parent who would have to juggle both – I don’t even see how it would be possible. I was doing lessons for hours.”

Fox added: “Closing the schools for more than a couple of weeks is just completely detrimental to their mental health, not to mention how far behind they are academically. It’s really quite sad.”

For 35-year-old Khadija, who lives in Lancashire, it’s not such an easy decision.

She lives in a three-bedroom terrace house with her husband and four children – a situation that became really difficult during the first lockdown when everyone was working and learning from home.

With not enough laptops and tablets to go around for everyone to work on, they had to take it in turns “or use my phone, which is not ideal at all”.

She also found that while the school her middle children attend was good at engaging their students and keeping them focused, her youngest and eldest children were often left to their own devices by their teachers for long periods during the school day.

Back to school coronavirus covid 19
Back to school coronavirus covid 19
Ana Belen Garcia Sanchez via Getty Images

Despite this, Khadija still thinks that schools should close. “I live in Preston, where we have been under very tight restrictions since August,” she said.

“Despite this, cases are amongst the highest in the country. We know so many people in hospital with Covid and who have died.

“Schools, colleges and unis are super spreaders for sure. Where cases are high, schools should be closed. Half-term would have been an ideal time to have a two- or three-week lockdown.”

Claire Thurgood, who lives in Norfolk, is also “not happy at all” that schools will remain open.

Earlier this year, both she and her 14-year-old daughter caught coronavirus – and they are still living with the effects of long-Covid. “We are both afraid of the infection,” the 58-year-old said.

“My daughter was very upset at having to go to school today. She doesn’t want to go.”

Despite the fact it initially looked like the teenager had mild coronavirus symptoms, she is still not better “but struggling on at school”.

“I have considered taking her out of school during lockdown, but it would have to be backed up by our GP, who I will be contacting soon,” Thurgood said.

“If the GP backs me up, I will take her out of school. Last lockdown, I taught her myself for six months.”

But as a retired teacher, Thurgood acknowledges that she is at advantage in being able to help her daughter with her schooling.

“Having worked in children’s services in the past, kids from disadvantaged backgrounds would lose out if there was home schooling, particularly if home life is chaotic.”


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