Schools should let teachers select additional vulnerable pupils for an early return to classrooms to increase numbers gradually, a leading scientist has said as the children’s commissioner demanded a roadmap for full reopening.
In an interview with the Guardian, the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Prof Russell Viner, said any increase in pupil numbers in England’s schools would depend on infection rates and demand on NHS services.
But when safe to do so, vulnerable children currently not attending school could be prioritised for a return to the classroom, he said, rather than the reintroduction of entire year groups which would have a greater impact on Covid transmission rates.
About 14% of pupils in England are currently getting in-person teaching, including children of key workers and the most vulnerable pupils, amid closures planned until February half-term.
But with the government declining to guarantee that schools will reopen even after Easter in April, many in the sector are arguing for a phased return, with early years, primary and exam years among groups likely to be considered first, and with rota systems in secondary schools to limit transmission.
Viner said: “We could look at a gradual increase in school attendance, starting with more vulnerable children and those coming to harm at home. If we asked every teacher, most would be able to identify five children doing less well at home. We may have some room to bring those children back into school before we open up to whole years.”
The call came as the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, urged Boris Johnson to set out key criteria that need to be met for schools to safely reopen, and what additional measures may be necessary in schools, such as testing or staff vaccinations, to suppress the virus.
“Unfortunately, it is much easier to close schools than to reopen them,” she wrote in a letter to the prime minister. “That is why we are calling on the government to produce a clear roadmap for reopening schools to all pupils. Without it, there is a risk that the status quo becomes embedded as a default position.”
In further pressure on Johnson, the Times reported that Public Health England has concluded primary schools can safely reopen after half-term if cases keep falling. It said a series of studies had concluded that pupils in that age group play a small role in spreading infection.
Earlier, Downing Street indicated that schools in England are not expected to start fully reopening until at least early March. The government has promised to reassess lockdown measures on 15 February, and Johnson’s spokesperson said this would be the point at which the evidence would be examined to see if any easing could take place.
The comments came after the prime minister said he would examine “the potential of relaxing some measures” connected to lockdown once the top four categories of vulnerable adults had had their first Covid vaccination, due to happen by mid-February.
Labour accused the prime minister of causing further confusion over when schools will reopen and called on the government to guarantee that schools and colleges will be first to reopen when lockdown eases.
Speaking ahead of an urgent question in the Commons on Tuesday, shadow schools minister Wes Streeting said: “Labour has been clear that safeguarding our children’s education must be the top priority: that means schools must be the last to close and first to reopen.
“The government should be working with education staff to develop a credible plan to get pupils back to schools and colleges safely as soon as possible.”
Longfield said children and families had been left “stunned” by the apparent unravelling of return plans, and called on the government to have more ambition and not to be “defeatist”.
She said it seemed more manageable for primary children to return to school and there was a strong argument for children to go back in stages. “There’s the potential to have some blended learning so children can learn at home for half the week, but children need that sense that actually there’s an end to this and they can start to get their lives back.”
A Mumsnet survey of 1,000 UK parents of school-age children found that 62% were in favour of primary children and those in exam years returning to school after February half-term. Three-quarters said school lockdowns were harming their child’s education, and 73% of those doing home-schooling said their child was more demotivated and disengaged than usual.
The Mumsnet founder, Justine Roberts, said: “Most parents accept that the national situation demands restrictions on school attendance, but the impacts on parents and children are serious. Working mothers in particular are really struggling, and worrying about their own future in the workplace as well as children’s education and wellbeing.”
New research into remote education by the schools watchdog Ofsted raised concerns about pupil motivation, with nearly half of parents who took part in the survey struggling to keep children focused. Almost two-thirds of parents of pupils with special educational needs said their children were disengaged from remote learning.