Schools must be prioritised over pubs and shops in planning for future coronavirus lockdowns, the Children’s Commissioner for England has warned.
Anne Longfield said children were too often “an afterthought” during the first lockdown as she published a paper setting out the key actions needed to ensure that youngsters are “at the heart” of future plans.
She argued that if any local or national lockdown takes place, schools should be the last places to be locked down, after pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops.
It comes after a new modelling study implied that reopening schools in September must be combined with a high-coverage test-trace-isolate strategy to avoid a second wave of Covid-19 later this year.
Ms Longfield’s briefing paper says keeping schools open should be the “absolute priority”, adding: “Education should be prioritised over other sectors: first to open, last to close.
“When only a limited amount of social interaction is feasible, the amount accounted for by education must be protected – at the expense of other sectors/activities.”
The Children’s Commissioner believes reducing Covid-19 transmission in the community is very important “but it should not be automatically assumed that this requires closing schools – except as a last resort”.
With rapid testing of pupils and teachers, any confirmed Covid-19 cases and their close contacts can be isolated without necessarily having to send entire classes or year groups home, the briefing paper says.
Ms Longfield said that if schools do have to close, they must remain open for children of key workers and vulnerable children.
She said this latter group should be renamed “priority children” and a concerted effort must be made to work with these families to increase the child’s attendance.
The briefing says Government should consult on the type of children covered by the priority list and allow more flexibility for teachers to identify youngsters as a priority where they have concerns.
The paper argues that where other children need to work online, the Department for Education must expand its laptop programme so that pupils in all year groups who need them can receive devices and 4G Wi-Fi routers quickly.
Ms Longfield said consideration should be given to the impact on children expected to take exams next summer so that they are not disadvantaged, especially in the case of extended local lockdowns.
There is a risk that some children will struggle to transition back to school after a period away, the paper says, adding that schools should make pastoral care a clear priority and identify reasons for non-attendance or challenging behaviour and what support youngsters need.
With evidence of a rise in mental health issues among certain children because of the lockdown, Ms Longfield called for local NHS mental health teams to work with schools to provide advice and support to prevent problems.
The briefing also suggests the Government hold a press conference aimed at children, and says youngsters should be allowed to participate and encouraged to submit questions.
Ms Longfield said: “Too often during the first lockdown, children were an afterthought. Despite the welcome decision to keep schools open for vulnerable children, too few attended.
“Those schools that did bring back more children before the summer holidays often found classes were only half-full. That must change in September.
“The Government’s promise that all children will be back to school after the summer holidays is a step in the right direction. However, if a second wave occurs, children must be at the heart of coronavirus planning.
“That means schools must be the first to reopen and the last to close during any local lockdowns. Regular testing must be also in place for teachers and pupils, to reassure parents.
“If the choice has to be made in a local area about whether to keep pubs or schools open, then schools must always take priority.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said he agreed with the Children’s Commissioner about it being vital to get children back to school as soon as possible, adding that it is also important to prevent a worsening Covid-19 outbreak.
He said: “The last thing anyone wants to see is the reopening of schools leading to a resurgence in the prevalence of the virus.
“There are many factors that will contribute to this, most of which are entirely outside a school’s control.
“School leaders are currently preparing their schools for all children to return in September, and are following all the Government and health guidance they have been given in order to make it as safe as possible.
“But the success of September’s return to school rests as much on what happens outside the school gates as within.
“The Government needs to ensure that everyone knows what actions they should be taking to keep everyone safe – we’re all going to need to work together to be successful.”
Teresa Heritage, vice-chairwoman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “As we look to return to normal from September, councils will continue to work with all schools and local partners but it will be essential that councils have the capacity and necessary data to play their full part in the Test and Trace programme.
“Any local decision to close a school will need to be based on the scientific advice.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Getting all children back into the classroom full-time at the start of next month is a national priority, as this is the best place for them to be.
“We have always been and will continue to be guided by the best scientific and medical advice, and our detailed guidance sets out protective measures for schools to implement ahead of a full return in September.”