The Speaker
Tuesday, 18 June 2024 – 16:06

A balance of harms in keeping schools open?

England is heading back into lockdown, but this time schools are set to stay open – despite calls from a teaching union for them to close.

The National Education Union (NEU) has claimed that schools are a “major contributor to the spread of coronavirus” and has said that 70,000 teachers and support staff agree with them that they should close to all children, except those who are vulnerable or children of key workers.

General secretary of the NEU Kevin Courtney said in a statement,  “The government should include all schools in proposals for an immediate national lockdown and as a minimum be preparing for school rotas at the end of that period.”

He added, “It would be self-defeating for the government to impose a national lockdown, whilst ignoring the role of schools as a major contributor to the spread of the virus. This would be likely to lead to the need for even longer lockdowns in the future.”

Unlike in the first national lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that schools, universities and other educational settings will remain open under their current arrangements during the lockdown period from 5 November to 2 December.

So, why are schools set to stay open during the lockdown and could the decision be based off a balance of harms?


Concerns if schools are closed

Young people are perhaps likely to be more negatively affected by schools closing than they would be from catching COVID-19.

This is not to say that young people are immune from the virus and that they cannot become seriously ill or even die from the virus – however, data suggests that in general, the risks of COVID-19 to most young people are relatively small. 

During the first lockdown, young people lost months of education, which many fear could, if not managed carefully, have long term impacts. Young people are also more likely than some age groups to experience mental health difficulties.

Schools are arguably more prepared to provide distance learning online than earlier in the year, however, most would agree that it is far from the experience of face-to-face teaching and interacting with other people in person.

Young people are usually characterised as naturally social beings, which doesn’t work particularly well during the Coronavirus pandemic. During the decision-making process for whether to keep schools open, it has likely been considered that trying to maintain some normality for young people may disrupt their education and mental health less, even if it does mean that the virus is brought under less control than it may be if schools were closed.


‘Schools are taking many protective measures’

Since schools reopened, they have had to change the way they operate. Some examples of this include different year groups being segregated into bubbles to try and reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading.

In a Facebook post, the Department for Education sharing a link to an article said, “Schools are taking many protective measures to make sure they’re as safe as possible for their students”.

However, many are not happy about the measures being taken in schools to keep everyone safe. Many social media users have shared footage of packed classroom corridors and school fields, with some labelling them as a “COVID breeding ground”.

Concerns have also been expressed about measures (or a lack of measures in some cases) being taken to support school staff, who are statistically more likely to have their health negatively affected by the Coronavirus.


Support on both sides of the debate

Key figures have openly supported schools remaining open during the lockdown.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty has repeatedly supported schools remaining open. In August, he said, “The chances of many children being damaged by not going to school are incredibly clear and therefore the balance of risk is very strongly in favour of children going to school because many more are likely to be harmed by not going than harmed by going, even during this pandemic.”

The Prime Minister and government ministers have also said that schools should be a priority for staying open. 

Many though are expressing concerns about schools remaining open, including teachers and parents. On Sunday, the hashtag #CloseSchoolsNOW started trending on Twitter as people expressed their concerns. The NEU has called for schools to be closed and has also recently called for a rota system to be used in secondary schools. 

Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer has said that he believes schools should remain open and the risk from this be managed.

Some scientists have claimed that the ‘R’ rate of the virus may take longer to fall in this lockdown compared to the lockdown earlier in the year, due to schools staying open. This has raised concerns, as Michael Gove told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday that the lockdown may be extended if data (which usually has a time-lag period) does not support ending it.


What has happened elsewhere during lockdowns?

Wales is currently in a two-week ‘fire-break’ lockdown. During the first week, schools have been closed anyway due to the half-term break, limiting the impact on young people’s education. During the second week of the lockdown, primary and special schools will reopen – secondary schools will return, but initially only for vulnerable pupils and pupils in Years 7 & 8 only – other year groups will learn online for 1 week from home.

There had been calls for a lockdown to be held in England to coincide with the half-term break, however, these calls were rejected by the Government.

In Northern Ireland, which has a four-week lockdown, schools have had a 2-week half-term holiday.

In both France and Germany, schools are remaining open during their new lockdowns.


What about universities?

There are also concerns about universities remaining open with a blended learning approach, involving some online teaching and some face-to-face teaching.

Since university students returned, many of the worst affected areas in terms of COVID-19 cases have been areas containing or near a university. It is considered that people travelling to a different area will inevitably lead to a higher risk of COVID-19 cases being spread and it seems highly likely that the return of universities has contributed to wider community transmission of the virus across the country.

Some scientists have advised that universities cease all face-to-face teaching, though have acknowledged potential problems arising from this.

Firstly, closing universities would most likely negatively impact the mental health of students. It would also cause economic issues in terms of university accommodation, at a time when many students and the Higher Education sector are already under significant financial pressures.

During the ‘fire-break’ lockdown in Wales, the Welsh Government said that universities should continue a blended learning approach which includes face-to-face teaching. Mr Drakeford said that the Welsh Government feared that if it said teaching had to be online only, many students may travel home and leave Wales, and then later come back to the country, potentially spreading the virus. 


Keeping educational settings open is a topic of significant discussion right now, with strong arguments on both sides of the debate. In a year where the education of young people has already been heavily disrupted, this is a topic that will likely continue to be debated for some time to come.

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