• Hertford & Stortford CLP

Back To School On 1st June

Last week the government confirmed that schools will be reopening today, June 1st. Their plans are shambolic and have thrown the education sector into an even deeper crisis. We understand the need for a return to work and that people are desperate to get back to a semi-normal life, but the government plans are not merely unworkable but also extremely dangerous.

The idea of schools “reopening” is highly misleading. They were never closed. Vulnerable pupils and children of essential workers have been going into school. If this had not been kept in place, our NHS, care homes and essential services would have been unable to operate leading to an even worse crisis than we have already seen. At the same time, teachers have been filming lessons, marking work, checking up on the welfare of families and making deliveries of food, stationery, laptops and even desks. One of our teachers who is also a Labour Party member has spoken about providing emotional support and parental advice to various families. School has by no means stopped.

Neither teachers nor the Labour Party are in favour of keeping schools semi-closed for the long term. However, for it to be safe, the test and trace system needs to be running effectively, something that the SAGE committee has confirmed. Instead, it recommends that delaying the reopening of schools by a mere two weeks “halves the risk to children”. Chris Hobson, Chief Executive of NHS Provider argued that the system was not ready in his interview on Newsnight. He outlined clearly that the lack of public trust in the system, the inability to provide rapid testing and the time that local authorities will need to implement plans means the system will not be running as it was originally intended to. In Italy, which has followed a similar, if slightly less severe pattern to ours, they have decided to keep schools closed until September, putting lives first. It is important to note that both their overall, per capita and daily death toll is now lower than ours. As important as all children returning to school is, we must follow the science to keep our children and the wider community safe.

The plans the government are putting into place are also unclear. The constant change in advice is hampering schools’ ability to plan. According to a local headteacher, schools are getting daily updates with conflicting information. He also confirmed that this has led to constant rewriting of social distancing plans and retractions and clarifications sent to parents. It became such a farce that their 1st June order to reopen is now unenforceable as schools point blank refuse to follow orders. Many schools in this constituency will only be opening to Year 6 next week in defiance of the government. During times of crisis, clarity is needed more than ever. As with every other aspect of lockdown, there has been no clarity for schools.

Even if we accept that schools need to open soon, the choice to bring back nursery, reception and Year 1 pupils is astonishing. Bringing back young children first will cause major issues. Children not being allowed to play with each other will feel like a punishment to them as they won't understand the need to socially distance. This lack of interaction through play will lead to a marked delay in emotional learning (a vital aspect of education) and undoing the damage will take years. What's more, if teachers elect to cover their mouths with a face mask, their learning of phonics and the English language will also take a major step back. It’s also obvious that working closely with a child at a 2m distance is impossible, meaning that misconceptions will become embedded. In short, for some children, an early return may hamper their learning, not improve it.

From a public health point of view, inviting the youngest children back first clearly makes no sense. Young children do much of their learning through play and the use of physical resources, moving freely around the classroom. Their ability to wash their hands and not cough over each other is limited to say the least and anyone who has ever met a five-year-old would realise socially distancing them would be impossible. Essentially, if the government wants to increase the R rate, it’s going the right way about it.

At the Hertford and Stortford Labour Party, we are not playing down the severe implications of closing schools. The right to an education is undeniably a basic human right. What’s more, it is the already disadvantaged children who are most harmed by the lack of physically going into school. It’s strange that the government is suddenly concerned about the disadvantaged after over a decade of cuts hitting the most vulnerable in society. A fund to support these children must be created to avoid a generation of lost opportunities for poorer pupils. However, the right to life must come first. When SAGE deems it safe to do so, schools must return. Anything before that puts our children and community at risk.

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