Tiverton High School, Devon. Photo: wikimedia commons Tiverton High School, Devon. Photo: wikimedia commons

Don’t play dice with people’s lives. Close schools now, argues Shabbir Lakha

Coronavirus is rapidly spreading internationally, and the death toll is rising. The global mortality rate is now at 4% and in Italy and Iran the mortality rate is 6%. The scale and seriousness of the crisis is sharply contrasted by inaction by the British and American governments.

The US’s devolved system has allowed local administrations on various levels to take action of their own accord despite the Trump administration dragging its feet. But in many cases it’s had to be fought for.

Until Sunday, New York City public schools, the largest public school system in the US with 1.1 million students, were set to be open on Monday as usual. The decision was met with outrage by teachers who said it is reckless and will only lead to the disease spreading faster. The United Federation of Teachers which represents around 150,000 NYC teachers condemned the decision, and the Movement of Rank and File Educators within the union called for a mass ‘sick-out’ on Monday to force schools to close.

It had an immediate impact and by Sunday evening, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City schools would not open on Monday.

In Britain, we must do the same. As of 18th March, Britain is one of only three countries in Europe that hasn’t closed its schools. The rationale remains, though the language has changed, of herd immunity and wilfully allowing children to be infected and become transmitters of the disease. As more teachers, parents and children are forced to self-isolate, the bulk of schools will eventually close whether or not it fits into the government’s plan, but in the process children’s lives and elderly and vulnerable people that they will come into contact with are being put at risk.

There are also an increasing number of cases of people aged 40 or younger with no serious underlying health problems having to be hospitalised, so the argument that the deliberate but slightly slowed transmission of the disease will limit the overwhelming of the health service doesn’t stand.

We need schools to be closed with immediate effect. Private schools which can ignore the government line are already closing, including Eton College. In one private school I know of, parents were given the option whether or not they wanted to bring their children to school on Monday, and only two children in the whole school came in – so the school is now closed.

Children and teachers in public schools and their families are not expendable. The National Union of Education should be following the exact model of the New York United Federation of Teachers and organising its teachers to force school closures now.

We are in existential crisis mode and the government is failing us - it’s time we start acting like it. Our lives depend on it.

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.