A general return to school in September and keeping schools open after that should be prioritised by the Government as it manages the COVID-19 pandemic according to a report by Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics (DELVE), a multi-disciplinary group convened by the Royal Society.
The report, Balancing the risks of pupils returning to schools, highlights the potential impact on the 13 year groups of students who have been affected by the lockdown. It is estimated that, without action, from the mid-2030s for the 50 years following that, around a quarter of the entire workforce will have lower skills. This could reduce their earning potential by 3% a year and consequently lower the overall economic growth rate. Apart from the longer-term economic consequences of school closures, the immediate negative impact on children’s mental and physical health, as well as their safety, will be considerable.
The report assesses the difficulties of balancing the significant costs to pupils and parents of school closures against the need to minimise the risk of COVID-19 infection of children, teachers and the wider community. It concludes that the risk of restarting schools is not as high relative to many other activities, while recognising that the evidence on the infection risk from school opening is still limited. The experience of most other countries which have already taken this step supports this. By contrast, the evidence on the negative impact of closing schools is considerable and robust.
When infection rates rise in some locations, schools may need to close but such decisions should be determined by objective criteria and made on a school by school or local area basis.
Professor Simon Burgess, Professor of Economics at the University of Bristol and a lead author on the report, said, “We know how damaging it is for children to miss out on school. The amount of school already missed due to the pandemic could impact on their earning potential by around 3% a year throughout their lives and impact on productivity in the UK for decades. While it is still early days, there has been little evidence of surges in infection rates in countries that have opened up their schools, including countries that have fully reopened. While we have to do all we can to reduce the risk of transmission, we do need to get our children back to school.”
The report calls on the Government to:
- Suppress the virus in the wider community, as a priority, to reduce the risk of transmission in schools once at full capacity, and to minimise future disruptions to learning.
- Have objective and transparent criteria for local decision making about closing and opening schools, with clear leadership for that decision making.
- Provide realistic guidance and substantial extra resources to ensure schools can minimise chains of transmission (parental guidance on when to keep their child at home applying the precautionary principle; rigorous hygiene; physical distancing and reduced mixing; extra teachers; PPE - including face coverings for teachers, older children and those with underlying heath issues; management of staff rooms; regular testing; and prioritisation for vaccines for teachers).
- Implement effective surveillance, with a test-trace-isolate system that enables a rapid response to outbreaks, and which allows schools to re-open quickly.
- Establish effective, clear and unified communication with school leaders, teachers and parents to manage opening and closing of schools in response to local conditions.
The impact on inequality is also explored. Professor Anna Vignoles, Professor of Education, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge and a lead author of the report said, “Shutting down schools has impacted all children but the worst effects will be felt by those from lower socio-economic groups and with other vulnerabilities, such as a pre-existing mental health condition. Children from low income households in particular are more likely to lack the resources (space, equipment, home support) to engage fully with remote schooling. Those with pre-existing conditions are more likely to experience a worsening of their mental health. This has to be taken into account in how we come out of this pandemic.”
One of the challenges highlighted in the report is the lack of data. It calls for a system, including surveillance studies, to be put in place to increase our understanding of the risks and provide decision-makers with the local and timely data they need to monitor neighbourhood and school infection rates and to respond accordingly. There is also a call for a programme of anonymous assessment of education achievement and pupil mental health across all age ranges in a sample of schools in mid-September, to gauge the extent and nature of the learning loss and the impact on pupil wellbeing.
Dr Ines Hassan, Global Health Governance Programme, University of Edinburgh, and a lead author of the report says, “The costs to children from school closures are considerable, and the public health risks from opening schools are likely lower than activities like going to the pub or the gym. Evidence to date suggests that in open schools, the risks to pupils from Covid-19 are low and that children are unlikely to develop serious complications from the virus, especially where community transmission is controlled. The risks of transmission within schools can be reduced through enhanced cleaning and distancing and wearing face coverings. Of course, when schools open after the summer break ensuring the health and safety of children will be paramount, and our report outlines the measures that schools will need to be supported to put in place.”
Professor Richard Wilkinson, Professor of Statistics, School of Maths and Statistics, University of Sheffield, “The UK has missed the opportunity this half term to collect the data needed to understand the relative risks to children, parents, teachers and the wider community, of opening or closing schools. It is critical that the government funds sufficient systematic testing in September to enable future decision-making around school closures to be evidence-based in the event of a second wave of infections in the winter.”