School classroom. Photo: Public Domain School classroom. Photo: Public Domain

As coronavirus spreads, the long-term consequences of not closing schools are likely to be devastating

No ‘mass gatherings’: no sports events, no concerts, no theatre. Don’t go to the pub, keep away from the shops and avoid travelling unless absolutely necessary.

But still send your kids to school.

This is the message from Boris Johnson’s government: major forms of social distancing, to combat the spread of coronavirus, combined with business-as-usual for millions of school children and hundreds of thousands of school staff. It doesn’t make sense.

This is crazy, dangerous and deeply irresponsible. It will literally prove to be a matter of life and death, potentially on a large scale.

A school brings together hundreds of people in close proximity every day. They are daily mass gatherings. That is why almost every other country affected by coronavirus has closed its schools with little or no delay.

Incredibly, the ‘plan’ if teacher numbers are reduced through sickness (which appears inevitable) is to increase class sizes. Those sizes, already pushed to the limit in many state schools, are there for health and safety reasons. Increasing class sizes puts children at risk and places supervising teachers in a compromising position.

Even in Trump’s America there are widespread school closures. In New York City, it helped enormously that teachers made a fuss and threatened to stay off work. That should serve as inspiration here.

The government has failed to provide any scientific arguments to back up its refusal to close schools. It appears, terrifyingly, to be based on the idea that allowing coronavirus to spread will build up immunity. That is scientifically illiterate and utterly unethical.

It also seems to be underpinned by narrow economic interests. Short-term profits for some are deemed more important than people’s health and survival.

Closing the schools does not mean that education is suspended. Teachers are preparing to provide online learning – not an adequate substitute for everything that a school provides, but the best option in these circumstances. There are naturally concerns about the needs of children from vulnerable or deprived backgrounds. We need to ensure that their needs are met – that will require putting demands on the government.

Refusing to close our schools immediately is extremely myopic. The long-term consequences are likely to be devastating. Closing schools temporarily should be a core part of social distancing.

Education workers and their unions have an urgent challenge in overturning this disastrous Tory policy. Parents ought to keep their children home where practical. Whether or not parents are able to do this, make your voice heard and push for closing the schools. It is vital for reducing the spread of coronavirus.

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