The hope was that schools could stagger on for another few weeks, sending groups of children home when positive Covid tests were reported, but otherwise carrying on with their best imitation of normal, with September expected to bring an end to compulsory quarantine when a member of the same bubble tests positive. But three weeks before the holidays in most English schools, chaos has once again broken out. Cases are rising, as are closures, with official figures showing one child in 20 was out of school within the last week. Areas including the north-west are disproportionately affected, leading to serious disruption.
Once again, children are losing out. Pupils have already missed out on significant chunks of education and many simply cannot afford to miss any more. End-of-year events are also a hugely important part of the school year. They include exams, sports days and concerts, as well as graduations and other rituals. This matters.
What makes this situation all the more worrying is the inadequacy of the government’s response. On Tuesday, Sir Kevan Collins told MPs on the education committee how disappointed he was when he resigned from the post of education recovery commissioner after four months. By offering just £1.4bn in funding when it was asked for £15bn, he explained, the government revealed its unwillingness to commit to the “massive national effort” that is required to prevent long-term harm.
The new health secretary, Sajid Javid, has said that he is seeking “more flexibilities” when it comes to the school rules around Covid. On-site testing is being trialled. But ministers are scrambling to address a problem that they should have seen coming. Guidance on mask wearing that was dropped in May should have been brought back when the Delta variant began spreading. More attention should be paid to ventilation, and support given to those told to isolate.
As with adults, vaccination is the obvious way to halt the virus’s progress. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is approved for use in anyone over 12. School leaders and teaching unions have called on ministers to make vaccinating children a priority. Many parents of children with underlying health conditions also support this. Unless or until the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is approved, this would entail sourcing more Pfizer doses.
If ministers and their advisers have some other plan, or believe that vaccine sharing with low-income countries should take priority, given the low risks that children face, they must publicly explain their reasoning. Other groups including care home residents have also been appallingly let down. But whatever the reason, the government’s neglect of young people during this pandemic is among the ugliest blots on its record, and one for which everyone who cares about education, both in politics and outside, must hold it to account.