Children should be put “at the heart” of future lockdown plans and schools prioritised over pubs and shops, the children’s commissioner for England has said.
As schools in England and Wales prepare to reopen next month, Anne Longfield warned youngsters were too often “an afterthought” during the first – and current – coronavirus lockdown.
But keeping schools open should really be the “absolute priority”, and they ought to be “first to open, last to close,” she wrote in a briefing paper.
Reopening schools in September must be combined with a high-coverage test-trace-isolate strategy to avoid a second wave of COVID-19 later this year, a new modelling study has suggested.
Rapid testing of pupils and teachers should allow any confirmed coronavirus cases and their close contacts to be isolated without necessarily having to send entire classes or year groups home.
Ms Longfield said: “When only a limited amount of social interaction is feasible, the amount accounted for by education must be protected – at the expense of other sectors/activities.”
Reducing the transmission of coronavirus in the community is very important, she wrote, “but it should not be automatically assumed that this requires closing schools – except as a last resort”.
Though schools were kept open for the children of key workers and vulnerable students, she added, too few children went.
“Those schools that did bring back more children before the summer holidays often found classes were only half-full. That must change in September,” she warned.
Ms Longfield said vulnerable children should be renamed “priority children” and a concerted effort must be made to work with these families to increase the child’s attendance.
In addition, ministers should make more laptops available for a possible surge in online learning, she said.
The commissioner also called for more care to be given in helping students with mental health issues and those who find it hard to transition back to school after a period away.
With that in mind, consideration should be given to the impact on children expected to take exams next summer so that they are not disadvantaged, especially in the case of extended local lockdowns.
Under current plans, all pupils in all year groups in England, will return to school full-time from the beginning of the autumn term.
Scotland’s schools have been given the go-ahead to reopen from 11 August, while in Northern Ireland there is a staggered return, starting 24 August.
Schools in Wales have already partly reopened and will do so fully when the new term starts.