Give the teachers Covid jabs, test the kids…and get our schools open

IF there is one issue that unites teachers, parents, pupils and politicians it is that they all want schools to reopen as soon as possible.

At the moment, that isn’t going to happen because the infection rate is very high and the NHS still has too many severely ill Covid-19 patients.

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But when the moment is right, schools must be ready without delay. In order to achieve that we need a clear roadmap for getting pupils back into classrooms safely.

One of the policies the Government should adopt is vaccinating teachers. There are about a million school employees — half of whom are teachers and the others support staff.

Given we vaccinated nearly 600,000 people in one day at the weekend, there is the capacity to do this at pace. We could have them all vaccinated in a couple of days.

In the past year I have gone past the golden age of 60 and I, like many in that group, would wait another 48 hours while teachers got their jabs in order to get schools reopened.

It is not a case of making anyone a lower priority. The plan to offer a first jab to the most clinically vulnerable, frontline health and care workers, and all those aged 70-plus, by mid-February would not be affected.

We are talking about vaccinating teachers after that. It is a practical idea which makes sense, because it would build confidence among school staff that they can return to work.

We need to make these decisions now, so parents will have a good idea when they can get back to work. At the moment, parents with primary school children are forced to stay at home, which for hard-up households is a nightmare scenario.

Some parents have lost their jobs or have had to ask to be furloughed because of homeschooling.

Little ones lose ability to play

Rumours about return dates have fluctuated from after February half-term, to after Easter and now March 8. I’d like to see a return for primary schools by the end of February.

Both unions and councils are telling me they think it is very doable to get younger pupils back. Primary school children have much less ability to work online and to meet friends without their parents, and are more likely to feel the isolation.

They are less likely to be ill because of the virus and there is evidence they are less likely to transmit it. Children who are aged three have spent a third of their life in lockdown and parents of very young children say they are very worried.

We have reports of little ones being tearful and clingy, and they are losing the ability to play with friends in the playground. I’m really pleased the early-years settings have stayed open, because 40 per cent of the disadvantage gap begins before school.

Children have lost 575million school days in the UK due to the pandemic and there are some pupils in the North who’ve only had a handful of days in the classroom.

The truth is that we have not all been in this together because, while some pupils have had to borrow their parents’ cracked smartphone to access the curriculum, those in private schools have been set up with good tech right from the start.

A survey taken last July on the numbers of pupils with mental health issues showed the prevalence had jumped, over a decade, from one in nine kids to one in six.

For kids with a serious mental health condition, being locked down like this is an emergency.

While stuck at home, they have been relying more on screens and social media, which will only make matters worse. Our own figures show there will be more than two million children who are in households with domestic violence, addictions or parents with mental health problems.

Returning to face-to-face learning needs to be given the same priority as other pandemic-related issues. I’d like to see the No10 briefing have a slide showing the progress toward reopening schools.

We need to be realistic that community infections won’t just suddenly go away, and to have a plan to restrict transmissions once students return.

Headteachers have been saying to me since last summer that it would be helpful to test pupils to see whether they are Covid-19 positive or not. Flow tests (rapid checks with no lab kit, useful for finding asymptomatic carriers) are not perfect, but anything that can reduce the spread of the virus will help ensure schools stay open for good this time.

Increasing social-distancing would help. Some European countries have taken over public buildings and put temporary classrooms into school grounds to provide more space.

This needs to be planned right now, along with preparing to vaccinate our teachers. For the under-70s to wait an extra two days for their jabs is not much to ask.

We must get children back to school to prevent our kids becoming part of a lost generation.

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