It's time to have a grown-up conversation about schools reopening

We need to know that the reopening of schools is being done based on purely public health evidence, and not economic concerns.

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Before being an MP, I was a teacher. I’m keenly aware that every day schools remain shut, the disadvantage gap widens, and the students who need the most from teachers and support staff are being left behind. More than this, it’s the most vulnerable children I’m most worried about. Are they eating? Are they safe? There's more to think about than learning.  

So, I want schools to open. But it has to be safe for them to open: for children, for staff and for our wider society. 

The government has announced they want schools in England to open on 1 June. Given the reaction from parents and teachers I know, I believe the government is some way from reassuring the public that we are doing the right thing. Wales have ruled out a 1 June reopening, Scotland has suggested August and Northern Ireland September. What is so different about England? 

Most people understand why year 6, year 10 and year 12 are the first, given that these are key transition or exam years, but there is bafflement about reception and year 1.  

Guidance was published, but it became clear not all the unions were asked to comment on the specifics of it. Teachers I’ve spoken to say much of it isn’t workable. But many are also worried for their own exposure.  

While, thank goodness, it seems children are far less affected than the general population, many parents I speak to are also worried about their children becoming vectors for the disease that could then come back into the household.  

These concerns are real, and speak to a general anxiety that transparency and clarity could cure. We owe it to our children and the nation to get this right. And the public are ready, in my view, to have a grown-up conversation about the risks and rewards.  

So yesterday, I asked an urgent question in the House of Commons to try and get some answers from the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson. I was initially pleased that he agreed to publish the scientific advice the decision was based on as I’d requested. But then, that same afternoon, his department’s chief scientific adviser told the Science and Technology Committee that the decisions taken on reopening schools were not taken by the DfE, and that there was "low confidence" in the evidence that says children transmit Covid-19 less than adults do. The confusion continued to grow as he then issued a correction letter following the hearing, in which he said he and the department had been closely involved. Which is it? What on earth is really going on?  

If the department is this confused, then no wonder the public is. That’s why the publication of the scientific advice is key. 

We need to know that the reopening of schools is being done based on purely public health evidence, and not economic concerns. Yes of course parents are under pressure right now, and I’m sure many are very keen to get their children back to schools, but we must put everyone’s safety first. And even if it is safe, we then move to how practical the suggestions are.  

What constitutes safe? How do school leaders reassure their staff who are anxious that it’s safe to come to work? How will food be prepared safely for all the kids who need it? How will parent pickup work safely? What are the government’s minimum expectations for delivery of the curriculum? What does “some face-to-face" contact for years 10 and 12 even mean? Will all schools receive the funding and support to ensure they can afford to clean their premises to high enough standards? And how are schools supposed to find enough classroom space to accommodate half-size groups in the first place? 

It’s my belief that every head teacher should be able to have a final say on how their schools should reopen and have maximum discretion. Risk assessments should be published, and the government should remain flexible.  

And finally, we should be wary of workforce concerns. Some will get sick. Others will have to shield. With school budgets cut to the bone in recent years, there aren’t enough teaching assistants to make this work.  

These considerations are unresolved, and yet schools are being asked to plan to reopen in two weeks’ time. The government needs to work with unions, with opposition parties, with school leaders, with teachers and staff, and with parents if we are to succeed in our joint goal of getting our schools open. 

Now is the time to be transparent, cooperative and proactive. Let’s hope that starts soon. 

Layla Moran is the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson

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