Alongside the tragic loss of life and livelihoods, one of the most devasting impacts that the Coronavirus pandemic has had is on the life chances of children through the substantial disruption to education over the last year.
Whilst children haven’t necessarily been physically in the classroom, schools have very much remained open over the last 12 months, not only providing onsite provision for the children of key workers and those classed as vulnerable but also providing lessons online. Like other key workers, all those who work in schools and other education settings have done a phenomenal job over the last year of keeping things going and provide support for young people and we should all be incredibly thankful for that.
The reality remains, however, that having children out of the classroom for so long does have significant impact on education attainment and future life chances. The Prime Minister confirmed last week that it will not be possible to reopen schools immediately after the February half term. However, if we continue to make progress in driving down case numbers and achieve the target of vaccinating everyone in the four most vulnerable groups with their first dose by 15 February, then it may be possible to start reopening schools from Monday 8 March.
Unfortunately, a huge amount of damage has inevitably already been done, for which there is no quick solution. Contrary to some assertions, Coronavirus is not an equaliser, especially not in an education or life chances sense. Coastal communities were already suffering from some of the worst education outcomes and deprivation before the pandemic and the last year has simply exacerbated them. According to the Children’s Commissioner, last year over 757 million school days were missed, and pupils were on average three months behind last September, rising to four months in the most deprived schools.
Alongside the educational aspect, there is a significant mental health impact of the current situation. Mental health referral cases in young people here in Devon are doubling. Keeping children from school not only impacts their education and life chances but takes away their sense of purpose and self-worth. Unfortunately, there is not going to be some quick and easy fix to this. It’s going to require significantly more investment in CAMHS provision here in Devon and a recognition of the challenges that services face.
A number of people have raised the possibility of prioritising school staff for vaccination to enable schools to re-open as soon as possible. I believe this is certainly something that should be considered, albeit weighed against the inevitable other competing priority groups when it comes to vaccination. The logical place would be to start with those working in nurseries and SEN environments where social distancing is simply not possible, followed by those who are at greater risk. Age remains one of the greatest factors when it comes to illness so it would illogical to give the virus to a fit and healthy teacher in their twenties over an individual in their fifties, for example. Similarly, vaccinating teachers doesn’t solve the issue of community transmission amongst children in a classroom setting.
To counter this there should be a considerable testing system in place to regularly test school staff and pupils. Mass testing would allow a greater understanding of how the virus is transmitting in schools and also enable schools to isolate incidents. Vaccinations are a must, but you also need a testing system in place whilst this is happening.
The last year has been incredibly challenging for the education of children across the country and the impact of this will be felt for years to come. What we need to see when schools re-open fully, is a clear plan on both mass testing and vaccinations to ensure we do not have to close schools (to this extent) again. We owe it to staff, to parents and, most of all, to the children.
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