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The conversation around schools reopening has been embittered throughout the coronavirus crisis. One saving grace of the virus is the strange phenomenon of how it doesn’t seem to affect children as much – which has exacerbated the debate about whether the return of schools is safe.
The Department for Education has said that in England all pupils, in all year groups, will be expected to return to class full-time at the start of the autumn term.
Schools have already reopened in Scotland, and schools in Wales and Northern Ireland will also go back in September.
The Government has set out a system of controls for schools and said the following four points must happen in all schools, all the time:
- keep pupils with COVID-19 symptoms, or with family members with symptoms, away from school
- introduce more frequent hand-washing
- promote good hygiene around the use of tissues for sneezes and coughs
- have enhanced cleaning procedures
Schools are also being advised to:
- stagger start and finish times
- form ‘bubbles’ for children
- avoid large gatherings, such as assemblies
But the advice has been met with heavy criticism, with many citing how difficult it is to keep children away from each other, and how a sudden outbreak in a school could heavily disrupt parents and caregivers.
The question of how safe the return is has been looming ever since schools first went out back in March.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has insisted there is “little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school”, while care minister Helen Whately says the risk there is “very low”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also keen to focus on the children themselves instead of the supposed risks, saying we have a “moral duty” to get kids back into education.
“There is a low risk to children’s health from COVID-19, and significant harms from schools being closed,” the latest SAGE report from a meeting on 9 July concluded.
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The report says it is “strongly in the interests of children for schools to be open” and evidence suggests outbreaks in schools are “extensions” of wider community ones.
It adds that the “spread from children to adults appears to be low”.
Children thankfully account for less than two percent of coronavirus cases.
The concern with reopening schools comes with older children and teenagers, who have wide social circles and are more likely to interact with a wide range of adults.
Prof Neil Ferguson, whose initial modelling at the start of the pandemic sparked lockdown, also warned big schools and further education colleges reopening “poses a real risk” of “case numbers going up quite sharply”.
“In terms of the reproduction value – the R value – opening high schools could increase it by as much as a half, but by as little as 0.2 or 0.3, but it will go up… [and] lead to quite rapid growth of the epidemic,” he told BBC Radio 4 last week.
Dr Isabella Eckerle, head of the emerging viruses research group at the University of Geneva, cautioned: “If we go back to the normal school day now clinging to wishful thinking that children do not play a role in the pandemic, that will come back to haunt us.”
Do I have to send my child back?
The Government has made it mandatory for all pupils to return in September.
Headteachers will be following the same rules from pre COVID-19 times – sanctions and fines can be issued for not sending your child to school, despite protestations from parents who do not feel safe sending their children back.
If you child has symptoms of coronavirus, you must make them stay at home.
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