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Britain’s governments have less time than they think to make a decision on schools

If you want to be able to reopen schools safely in September, you need to be reopening more cautiously in August – probably even closing a few things again.

By Stephen Bush

Successfully reopening schools would, at a stroke, be the biggest single economic stimulus short of a reliable vaccine it is possible to imagine.

It would allow us to begin to reverse the damaging effects of missed schooling on the United Kingdom’s children – which will have economic and social consequences of far greater impact than the increased debt burden the government has taken on to protect incomes during the lockdown – and in the immediate short-term, would boost the United Kingdom’s productivity and mental health, as parents who are currently having to both do their jobs from home and provide 24-hour, seven-day childcare would be able to return to something a little bit closer to normality, and children who have had little contact with others their own age would be able to resume doing so.

So, in some ways, opening schools is also the easiest question facing the government: because of the immediate and long-term consequences of continued closures are so bad, you really don’t have to weigh up any other competing interests. We can protect the unemployed with a generous welfare state and we can keep non-viable businesses alive through subsidy if we want. But the levers you can pull to help a generation who missed out on more than a year of their education at a formative stage are less clear and far less guaranteed to work.

We now know a lot more about the risks involved with reopening schools, and the bad news is that the evidence increasingly suggests that reopening schools carries as big a viral threat as anything else. Add that the evidence is that our current level of openness is already at or near the level at which the novel coronavirus starts to spread freely through the country, and the difficult trade-off the government faces is that we are going to have to close something else in order to reopen schools.

When you add in the considerable logistical challenges of running schools with social distancing measures in place, then the government might be better off closing multiple things down in order to reopen schools properly, rather opening them up essentially to provide childcare and not much else.

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That’s the essence of the “schools or pubs” debate going on inside the government right now. But there is a crucial misconception at work: if you want to close something so that schools can open in September, you need to do it very soon, because the higher the viral risk, the harder it becomes to reopen schools safely. (Not least because you can’t really have a functioning school with a load of sick teachers.)

It’s a mistake to see the “close pubs or close schools” question as an issue for September – it’s a decision that probably needs to be made much sooner than that, if you want to be able to re-open schools.