The Government has still not published a full scientific justification for its plan to reopen schools in June, when we have the highest death rate per capita in the world. There is a big empty space where an explanation should be.
The general public, the unions, parents, teachers, students have, in the majority, been viscerally alarmed by this decision, which will put their lives on the front line of a second wave of the virus. My heart goes out to those who fear for their safety but are not given the decency of a reason why.
You will understand my frustration at the genre of opinion which has emerged quietly in the weeks since, which makes ending the lockdown (and dismissing the concerns of the above group) seem like the height of progressive policy.
I’ve seen a number of “takes” I’d put in this category: Lockdown increases educational inequality - children who are already disadvantaged are likely to fall even further behind, especially if they’re in environments that don’t, or can’t, support their learning. Lockdown is bad for children’s mental health. Schools need to reopen to address these glaring social problems.
I think the issues they raise are valid. But at their heart, they are anti-lockdown arguments: they make the case that the above factors are more important than the lives potentially saved in refusing to reopen. I find something galling about them, something insincere, something deeply unhelpful.
Educational inequality and children’s mental health are not issues created by COVID-19. They are caused by austerity and inequality, by the fact four million children in the UK live in poverty. The pandemic has merely exacerbated them.
Where were our advocates for lessening inequality and childhood distress when Wolverhampton’s youth service budget was decimated, when local schools had their funding cut by millions, or our education sector was carved up on a plate for private interests? These cuts were widely seen as a necessary evil - and yet children missing a couple of months of school is an unbearable tragedy?
Will our advocates for disadvantaged pupils campaign against private schooling, or the regional lottery? Will they stop middle class parents moving to put their kids in the best schools?
Give me a break. We must fight for proper education and protection for disadvantaged children, and we must contain a virus that kills the deprived at twice the average rate; that kills BAME people three or four times more frequently.
Arguments of this type pull the rug from under those who are frightened of a return to schools. Wrapped up in a language of concern, they bring anxious parents, teachers and activists to wonder - am I really advocating making children miserable?
We were one of the last European countries to enter lockdown. Our rate of infection is still miles higher than our neighbours. The Conservative Government began by advocating a policy of “herd immunity”, and has since failed to produce policies of mass testing and tracing, PPE or workplace safety.
The University of East Anglia Research has suggested closing schools was one of the biggest factors in lowering our rate of infection. And yet the Government, which - either through cruel intention or incompetence - has failed to control the virus, wants to open them again, despite having one of the worst records in the world?
Teaching unions do not want schools to reopen in June because it will not be safe. The National Association of Headteachers called plans for social distancing “unworkable”. Social Distancing will not be possible, inside or outside classrooms.
Any guilt thrust at those who don’t want children to return must first be put to the Government. Their utter failure to control the virus as other countries have is the reason we don’t feel safe to reopen. They are the first we should blame for the negative effects of lockdown.
They want our children to return to school so we can return to work. A victory for the Government on the schools front will be followed by a shortening of the furlough scheme (which they have already tried unsuccessfully), and subtle changes to Universal Credit to force people back into employment.
Easing lockdown is in the interests of capital, money, business. Yet the concerns about children's wellbeing must not be ignored. We must fight inequality, and we must resist capital.
Our activism must be constructive. It is not an issue of “If” schools should reopen, but “when” and “how”. We must rally around demands like the Six Tests produced by the NEU, NAHT, NASUWT, UNISON, Unite, which put safety and staff at the forefront of any proposals. We must argue that schooling is a social good, but one which should only be implemented when the virus is under control. Examples like South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand show this is possible.
Child mental health and education inequality must be at the forefront of Coronavirus Recovery. We must have more teaching assistants, more funding for school counsellors. We must abolish the testing of young children and accept that our schools are about more than academic advancement. We can look at more immediate policies that can help families.
But first, we must protect the vulnerable, and stand with the frightened.