Our children are at risk of becoming the worst-hit victims of Covid | Observer editorial | Opinion


Last Sunday, the prime minister declared it was safe for schools to reopen as planned across much of England. On Monday evening, after many children had returned to school for a single day, he announced that schools would be closing for most children for at least seven weeks.

Nothing material changed over the course of those 24 hours. There was no shift in data trends, no new scientific discovery, no fresh revelation. It was a decision that could and should have been made before Christmas. Instead, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, threatened legal action against schools that followed local authority advice to close a few days early. Secondary schools were instructed to prepare to organise and oversee regular testing of all pupils over the break. In the days before this screeching U-turn, headteachers were put in an impossible position: should they continue to prepare for schools to return or should they start to make plans for the closure they knew was coming, even if Williamson refused to admit it?

This incompetence has come to define the government’s approach during this pandemic. While children remain relatively unaffected by the immediate health consequences of Covid, they will suffer the worst long-term consequences of the pandemic. The effects of months out of school, compounded by the financial hardship imposed by Covid, will be felt most acutely by children from disadvantaged backgrounds. There will be lifelong ramifications for their economic, physical and psychological wellbeing.

Yet the government has put almost nothing in place to try to lessen these impacts. Last May, when infection rates were falling, it prioritised picking a public fight with the teaching unions over getting more children in school. It failed to prepare for this period of remote learning by equipping less affluent homes with laptops and internet connections; last week, it emerged that Williamson turned down an offer to give them free broadband. It has made it as difficult as possible for teachers to adapt by issuing vague guidance and making difficult decisions as late as possible. It has failed to prepare for issues that were clearly looming, such as the exam grades fiasco. It had to be shamed into offering meals for poor children during the school holidays by Marcus Rashford – not once, but twice.

There are now more children in school than during the first lockdown: a TeacherTapp survey suggests that one in three primary schools has more than 20% of pupils in. If this is as a result of more children attending who are at risk, or for whom it is impossible to learn at home, that is a good thing: far too few were in school in the first lockdown. But it would be worrying if these spaces are being taken up by working parents not in frontline essential services work; if schools are being used to compensate for the fact that, even though this variant is more infectious, more of the economy is operating normally than in last March. The government urgently needs to publish data on which children are in school to shed light on why schools are busier this lockdown. Schools also need more resources to help them in simultaneously providing onsite and remote learning.

We are also calling for the government to establish an independent commission on how to minimise the long-term impacts of the pandemic on this generation of children and young people, a proposal that has the support of the children’s commissioner. This commission should bring together school leaders, teaching unions, education experts, doctors and mental health professionals, as well as the children’s commissioner, to make recommendations on strategy to be pursued by ministers. This would benefit any government enmeshed in firefighting the immediate crisis of a global pandemic, but particularly this one, given its utter lack of any coherent plan for children.

Children deserve to be protected from the impacts of the pandemic as much as possible. Time and again, Boris Johnson and Williamson have proved they are languishing at the bottom of their priority list. That must change.




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