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Editorial: On schools, politicians are still ignoring the lessons of the last year

TORY pressure on ministers to bring forward a return to classroom teaching for all pupils is predictable but dangerous.

Backbenchers fixated on reopening the economy are continuing to ignore all the lessons of the last year, in which we have seen cycles of virus peaks and troughs when emergency measures are lifted without systems in place to prevent a resurgence.

Commons education committee chairman Robert Halfon argues that “even if there are tighter restrictions in other parts of our society and economy, you have those restrictions in order to enable the schools to open.”

Such an approach is illogical. Of course, the more you restrict human contact, the fewer people will be infected. 

This is why the numbers of new cases and daily deaths are now dropping slightly, though they still remain extremely high, with a seven-day average to the end of last week of 1,240 deaths a day – higher than the daily maximum at any point in 2020.

But the reason schools proved such incubators of the virus last autumn is because it is often impossible to enforce social distancing in classrooms, and children “tend to have a wide transmission circle” in which parents and grandparents can become infected.

England’s second national lockdown last November was a failure because schools are an exemption on such a scale that widespread household mixing and virus transmission is the inevitable result. The government could maintain its bans on eating out and going to the pub and its advice on working from home for those able to, but render them ineffective by throwing open the school gates.

Indeed, with virus infections still at very high levels and repeated scares over new variants, the focus should not yet be on lifting restrictions but on addressing loopholes in the current lockdown.

This still includes schools. Because of the failure to provide millions of the poorest children with the wherewithal to work from home (laptops and internet access, primarily) these children are classed as “vulnerable,” meaning they still need to attend in person. 

Lax definitions that allow many employers to misclassify staff as key workers mean some schools have been running at 60 per cent of normal capacity this month, a level that lets down the poorest in our society who are placed at risk by having to keep sending children in.

The desperation of many parents for an in-class school place is linked to another statistic reported by NHS test and trace boss Dido Harding today.

Less than 60 per cent of people advised to isolate actually do so, Ms Harding told a Confederation of British Industry webinar. She also recognised that this was probably an overestimate as it is based on self-reporting and many people do not count occasional breaches.

Even Ms Harding, a Tory crony utterly unqualified for her job, recognised that “financial concerns” are a major cause. Likewise, the need to hold down a job because of the lack of proper financial support is keeping the numbers in school too high.

And workplaces continue to be sites of infection because their claims to be Covid-secure are not being checked, while bosses have far too much leeway to order workers to come in without demonstrating that it is necessary.

On past form, Labour will echo the unhelpful mantra about opening schools “as soon as possible” rather than throwing its weight behind practical proposals to make school reopening safer.

The work-from-home shift leaves huge numbers of buildings empty when they could be repurposed as temporary “Nightingale schools,” allowing smaller class sizes and socially distanced learning.

That would require a teacher recruitment drive, of course — exactly as the National Education Union proposed more than six months ago.

If politicians cared as much about children’s education as they claim, they would back this constructive approach rather than focus on how quickly they can restore the status quo ante.

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