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When should UK schools reopen for all pupils? There's no simple answer

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12.01.2021

There are few issues more polarising than whether schools should reopen during a pandemic. We know that online learning often isn’t as effective as regular classes, and that closing schools disadvantages the poorest and most vulnerable children in society. But people are still divided over the question of when it will be safe enough to restart in-person learning. While politicians have argued that schools are safe, unions say that teachers are being sent into unsafe workplaces.

I’ve been helping to review the evidence on schools over the past 10 months for the Royal Society, which provides input to Sage and the Scottish government’s Covid-19 advisory group. The issue is far from clearcut: the science is still unfolding, particularly around the new variant, and the real question isn’t whether schools are safe or not, but how we balance various harms, benefits and risks.

So far, we know that closing schools for everyone except vulnerable children and those of key workers entrenches educational inequalities. This has an irreversible effect on people’s life chances. No amount of financial support can completely mitigate or reverse these harms, because schooling goes far beyond literacy and numeracy; it’s also about social and physical development and providing safe places where children can access supportive adults. Moreover, we know the impact of school closures falls largely on women; during the first lockdown, 41% of working women struggled to find childcare to cover their hours.

What’s also becoming clear is that we may have overestimated the effectiveness of closing schools. The return of schoolchildren in mid-August doesn’t appear to have been the driving force in the surge in cases many European member states experienced during the autumn,........

© The Guardian


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