School returners would have been ‘most likely to miss out’

The children chosen to be first to return to school have been picked because they are “most likely to miss out on the longer term”, one official has said.

Schools may start to reopen from June 1 at the earliest for children in reception as well as those in Year 1 and Year 6, the Government has announced.

England’s deputy chief medical officer said “the age groups that have been chosen are those who… are most likely to miss out on the longer term for education”.

Missing out on schooling could have implications for the education and health of youngsters, Dr Jenny Harries said, but added that there was a “difficult balance”.

It comes as another public health expert said that parents may have to accept “some risk” when sending their children back to school.

Dr Andrew Lee, reader in global public health at Sheffield University, said that schools will have to “find a way of living with the virus”.

Meanwhile, Dr Harries said that the UK was “quite precautionary” with it’s two metre social distancing rule and said that schools are a “controlled environment”.

Speaking during a Royal Society of Medicine webinar on Covid-19, Dr Harries said that younger children who get the disease “generally don’t suffer severe symptoms”.

Meanwhile they “probably” transmit the virus less, she added.

But the evidence on the effect of Covid-19 in older children and teenagers is “less clear”.

When probed on the ability of young children to perform social distancing, she said: “Broadly, we recognised that you can’t actually completely stop that happening but, in fact, if you have children in a school environment, it’s often a more controlled environment, and so it’s easier to manage, to instil good behaviours.

“And you can do physical things – so if they’re sitting at their small desks or small tables, you can still move the tables apart.

“The social distancing rule in the UK is also set at quite a precautionary level of two metres – that’s based on projections of droplets spreading if people are coughing and sneezing.

“But actually the World Health Organisation advice is one metre, some European countries have 1.5 [metres], so we’re fairly precautionary in this country and I think that should be helpful to people in understanding that it’s about trying to manage the risks overall, there are principles of managing them.

“I think the other thing we need to highlight is that the age groups that have been chosen are those who… are most likely to miss out on the longer term for education.

“There’s one thing managing Covid, but actually if that child starts its education late, it’s delayed, or it misses out, is likely to have… issues for that individual – they may be less likely to succeed in education, less likely to be in employment, and have worse health outcomes overall so there’s a real difficult balancing on this I think.”

Meanwhile, Dr Lee, who is also editor of the journal Public Health and a practising GP in Sheffield, told the PA news agency that schools, like everywhere else, will have to “find a way of living with the virus”.

He added that measures may need to be brought in, such as screens between desks or configuring classrooms so children are not facing each other.

But he said it was unlikely that schools would be able to set this up over the next fortnight.

He said: “These are measures that we need to start thinking about – infection control measures. How do we create a setting as safe as we possibly can? And I don’t think schools can just flip a switch and get this all in place in the next couple of weeks. It’s going to take them some time to get infection control advice and restructure the school day, perhaps.”

When asked if it meant parents will have to accept some risk, he said: “Yes, assuming that the Government’s strategy is to find a way of living with the virus rather than total elimination.

“Maybe that’s the message that the Government was trying to put out, but perhaps didn’t land clearly enough.”