But keeping children out of school will damage their mental health and widen the education gap between the rich and the poor, experts warned, calling for schools to be reopened as soon as it is safe to do so.
Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said: “There is no substitute in terms of children’s education and levelling things up between children to having them together in the classroom.
“Online learning can ameliorate the situation but it is absolutely no substitute and gaps will inevitably widen.”
He added: “It is essential to have a clear route out. At the moment there is desperate uncertainty. Children are cut adrift. They are left at a loose end and feel they have lost control of their lives.
“You can see how all this builds up and adds to what we would say was a threat to their mental health.”
Professor Smithers called for teachers to be among the first in line to be vaccinated. He said: “We need to look at what can be done to ensure schools can open as soon as possible. I would say assure the safety of the staff by making them a priority when it comes to inoculations.”
Sahreen Siddiqui, headteacher of Stanhope Primary School in Ealing, agreed that teachers should receive the vaccine. She said: “It is a sensible thing to do to close schools because safety has to come first. But it is definitely better when children are in school than not.
“Having children in school was absolutely incredible. The children were very happy and enjoying every moment of school life. I do have worries about children who are not doing any learning. Being in school benefits them educationally and benefits their wellbeing.”
But she added: “At the end of last term there was a positive case nearly every day in my school. It was becoming quite a challenge. It is difficult to control and lead a school when every day the rotas are changing and the situation is changing so quickly.
“It was causing a level of aggravation to parents who were finding out with no notice that their children couldn’t come to school.”
She said that last minute decisions by the Government about school closures added to the stress of the situation and called for more information about the planned return to school on January 18.
Ashid Ali, headteacher of the London Enterprise Academy also welcomed the decision to close schools because infection rates are so high, but said he is worried about the impact it will have on some families.
He said: “At the moment schools need to close because the infection rate is crazy. We have seen it since the second week of December when so many families were telling us their child was ill — we had families screaming at my admin staff on the phone saying thanks to your school the virus is now in my house.”
But he added: “In the last lockdown I had more phone calls about food vouchers and free school meals than I had about laptops, because survival is more important to people. I am expecting the same this time. Richer children who are more independent and have the resources and the training and the routines will continue with their lives, and when it comes to sitting their exams they will have the head start. The majority of our children haven’t got that routine in their lives and they need school to provide them with a routine.
“For a lot of families it is easier to put children in front of the TV, wake up late, miss breakfast, put them to bed early and miss the evening meal if that’s what it takes. That’s the situation the families are in. They haven’t got the food or family network or organisation to engage children independently in their homes while continuing with their domestic lives.”
All London primary schools are closed until January 18, with only vulnerable children and the children of key workers allowed in before then. All other children must undertake remote learning.
Secondary schools will remain closed to most pupils this week, with exam pupils restarting next week, and all others from January 18. Teaching unions are calling for schools across the country to be closed for the next two weeks.