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Schools should be the last place to be locked down in any future outbreaks, says commissioner

Schools should be the last places to be locked down if any local or national lockdown takes place, the children’s commissioner for England has warned.

Anne Longfield argues that if any lockdown takes place, schools should be the last places to be locked down, after pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops.

She says that given what it known about how Covid-19 affects children, and how much children travel outside the home, the scientific argument for keeping educational settings open is strongest for nurseries, followed by primary schools, followed by secondary schools.

However, once the wider social costs of school closures are factored in, all schools should be kept open as far as possible, and only closed as a last resort once other options have been exhausted, Ms Longfield adds.

Anne Longfield said: “Too often during the first lockdown, children were an afterthought. Despite the welcome decision to keep schools open for vulnerable children, too few attended. Those schools that did bring back more children before the summer holidays often found classes were only half full. That must change in September.”

The children’s commissioner outlines steps which should be taken into consideration when planning for any future lockdowns due to Coronavirus.

- There should be regular testing of pupils and teachers – regardless of whether they have Covid-19 – which is essential for keeping schools safe. This would prevent entire ‘bubbles’ or year groups from having to be sent home once a case occurs and will be particularly important in the 2020/21 winter flu season when clusters of flu could be mistaken for a Covid-19 outbreak.

- The results of testing on teachers and students should be pooled with attendance data to model risks of transmission and test effective strategies for minimising risk.

- Any outbreak in a school should be thoroughly investigated so that potential links in the chain of transmission can be pre-emptively broken in future.

- Vulnerable children should be renamed ‘priority children’ and a concerted effort must be made to work with these families to increase their child’s attendance. The government should consult on the type of children covered by the priority list and allow more flexibility for teachers to identify children as a priority where they have specific concerns.

- If schools do have to close, they must remain open for children of keyworkers and ‘priority children’ as before the summer holidays.

- The Department for Education must expand its laptop programme, for when children need to work online.

- Children in all year groups who need them should receive devices and 4G Wi-Fi routers quickly, in order for them to undertake home working. Work should be carried out now to assess the real level of need and ensure more flexibility for headteachers to get laptops to the children who need them.

Anne Longfield warns that consideration needs to be given to those children who are expected to take exams next summer to ensure that they are not disadvantaged, especially in the case of extended local lockdowns.

Pastoral care needs to be prioritised as there is a risk that some children will struggle with the transition back to school after a significant period away and this could manifest in a number of ways, including failing to attend, or low attendance, and challenging behaviour. Reasons behind this should be identified and addressed.

The Department for Education should closely monitor attendance and exclusion figures within areas which have experienced a local lockdown or increasing cases of Covid-19, in order to identify where further help is needed.

The Children’s Commissioner urges local NHS mental health teams to work with schools to provide advice and support to prevent problems, given evidence of a rise in mental health issues among certain children as a result of lockdown.

Furthermore, children in Young Offender Institutions and Secure Training Centres have been spending over 20 hours a day in their cells, face to face education has stopped and family visits have been banned. The Children’s Commissioner calls for a greater relaxation of these conditions so that children have access to better provision and quality of life in future lockdowns.

The government should hold a press conference aimed at children where children are encouraged to submit questions, just as adults were in the previous daily press briefings.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “The government’s promise that all children will be back to school after the summer holidays is a step in the right direction. However, if a second wave occurs, children must be at the heart of coronavirus planning. That means schools must be the first to reopen and the last to close during any local lockdowns. Regular testing must be also in place for teachers and pupils, to reassure parents.

“If the choice has to be made in a local area about whether to keep pubs or schools open, then schools must always take priority,” she concluded.

Putting children first in future lockdowns

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