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Editorial: Schools remaining open could fatally undermine the national lockdown

THE government’s refusal to include schools in the four-week national lockdown it announced at the weekend risks undermining the entire exercise.

Ministers pile on “half measure after half measure,” in the words of National Education Union (NEU) joint general secretary Kevin Courtney, even though coronavirus infections now exceed their own scientists’ worst-case scenario predictions many times over. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies put the number of daily infections at between 43,000 and 74,000 in mid-October — far higher than the most pessimistic forecasts of 12-13,000.

Schools are an engine for virus transmission. The infection rise among secondary school pupils is, in fact, higher than among any other category of people in the country, with infection rates now 50 times higher among them than when schools reopened in September.

By insisting that schools continue to remain open as normal — a stance shamefully supported by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer — Boris Johnson is putting every family with a child in school at risk, and showing contempt for the safety of teachers and other school staff.

And in ensuring that one major driver of rising infections is allowed to continue throughout the second lockdown, he increases the likelihood that the lockdown itself will have to be extended or repeated — with all the horrific consequences for household incomes and people’s physical and mental health this entails.

Why take such a risk? The government’s failure to meet its own promises on provision of broadband and equipment to allow all children to learn remotely is one factor. 

Another is surely the impact another schools lockdown might have on plans to force pupils through the usual examinations next year. This summer’s fiascos over GCSE and A-level results exposed the nature of an exam-factory system that rations qualifications to stratify the workforce, discriminating against working-class pupils at every turn. The furore over Ofqual’s attempt to replicate these results using an algorithm popularised long-standing calls for fundamental reform. The government is fixated on how to shore up this system rather than change it. 

So is the Labour leadership, and we could hardly have a clearer indication of the importance of fighting back against the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn and defending the legacy of the combative, principled socialist movement he led than Starmer’s refusal to stand by teachers.

Above all, the government is afraid of the economic disruption school closures cause by imposing daytime childcare requirements on parents. This in turn strengthens the case for significantly increased financial intervention to protect businesses and incomes at a time when ministers are seeking to withdraw that.

The government must not be allowed to sabotage its own lockdown. The entire labour movement should support education unions in their calls for schools to be part of the national lockdown effort. 

Interventions such as that of Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who points out that schools must close if infection rates are to be brought under control, show potential to raise Britain-wide pressure on this question, especially as the devolved administrations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have already accepted the necessity of school closures.

Further, we should be clear about the reasons the country is facing a second lockdown. The Tory failure to build an effective test-and-trace system during the first lockdown was entirely due to their decision to use vital public health contracts to enrich their private-sector friends instead of building an in-house NHS-run system. Their failure to reopen schools safely could have been avoided had they adopted the proposals made by the NEU in the summer, for example by recruiting extra teachers to allow smaller class sizes and requisitioning extra space to allow socially distanced learning.

Both expose the rotten character of a social and economic system that values corporate profit more than human life. Britain’s capitalist crisis requires socialist solutions.

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