MPs are demanding a school reopening plan - but what would it take?
Conservative MPs are demanding that the Government set out a so-called “route map” for the reopening of schools in England, as concerns continue to grow about the impact of school closures on children’s education.
It is expected that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will confirm this week that schools will not reopen after the February half term break. Health Secretary Matt Hancock previously refused to guarantee that schools would be reopening before Easter.
‘The Government needs to set out a route map’
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Education Select Committee chairman Robert Halfon said: “The Government said that the intention was to open the schools again after the February half term.
"Over the weekend in the newspapers it was indicated that the schools now won’t open until Easter, so that’s why I’m urging clarity for parents, children, teachers and support staff as to what the Government plans are, because there’s enormous uncertainty.
“What I want the Government to do is set out a route map, and what I mean by that is set out what the conditions need to be before children can go back to school more fully.”
Additionally, speaking to Times Radio, Halfon added: “I’m not a lockdown sceptic - I voted for all of the Government measures - but I am a permanent school down sceptic.
“We’re creating a 'have and have not' society with some children doing remote learning and disadvantaged children doing much less.”
‘Schools could have a phased reopening’
Halfon continued: “It may be one thing the Government should consider is that even if there are tighter restrictions in other parts of our society and economy, you have those restrictions in order to enable the schools to open.”
When asked if schools should reopen even if infection rates are still high, Halfon said: “Perhaps you might have a situation whereby in areas where coronavirus is still low, you would have schools open in those areas, you might have a phased opening.
“But we need to be told about these plans.”
Halfon also said that teachers and support staff should be an “absolute priority” for Covid vaccines, after vulnerable people have been protected.
‘Families need clarity’
Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said that families need “hope and clarity” about what the next step for children’s education will be. She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that schools should reopen “as soon as possible” and called for ministers to set out what progress is being made towards reopening.
Longfield said that the closure of schools has had an “enormous impact” on children, affecting their mental health and also widening the learning gap.
She commented: “Children are more withdrawn, they are really suffering in terms of isolation, their confidence levels are falling, and for some there are serious issues.
“This is some for which families around the country will need hope and clarity about what comes next, and that of course is what the speculation we’re hearing really feeds into - that confusion - but also the worry about where they as a family go from here.”
‘The pandemic’s forgotten victims’
Former Cabinet Minister Esther McVey said that the Government should take into account the damage that prolonged closures are having on children.
Speaking to The Telegraph, she said: “We genuinely seem to have forgotten about the children.
“Million of them are missing out on an education, not developing socially with their friends and aren’t allowed to enrich their lives by playing sports and music any more.
“They are the pandemic’s forgotten victims and we’ve got to start thinking about their prospects and futures as well.”
‘Plans to reopen schools under review’
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We continue to keep plans for the return to school under review and will inform schools, parents and pupils of the plans ahead of the February term.
“The Government remains committed to supporting young people’s education, including providing 1.3 million laptops and tablets for those who need them, as well as partnering with mobile data companies and online education resource providers.
“We will continue to work to reopen schools as soon as possible.”
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Hancock said: “We’re really clear we want to get schools back and as safe as we can, but we have to watch the data.
“Of course I hope schools go back after Easter and the vaccination programme is going fast. But we’ve got to make sure that we get the cases down and we’ve got to protect the country from new variants coming in from abroad.”