Schools must be kept open ahead of pubs or shops in any future coronavirus lockdown, the Children’s Commissioner for England has warned.
In a major intervention, Anne Longfield said children had been treated as an ‘after-thought’ in the first lockdown and insisted they must be at the heart of future plans.
She said schools should always be the first to open and the last to close. She also declared that, if necessary, they should be prioritised over other sectors and kept open at the expense of pubs, restaurants or non-essential shops.
Mrs Longfield called for regular testing of pupils and teachers, saying this was essential in keeping schools open and preventing ‘bubbles’ or year groups being sent home after just one positive test.
Boris Johnson has vowed that children will return to class on a full-time basis from next month.
But that pledge has been coming under pressure in recent days amid concern over an increase in infections and new social restrictions in the North.
At the weekend, scientists warned that pubs may have to close as a ‘trade-off’ to get all schools back.
Yesterday a major study in The Lancet medical journal warned that reopening all schools in September could lead to a devastating second wave of the virus without an improved test and trace system.
Teaching unions have also raised renewed concerns about the return of schools and called for a ‘Plan B’ if the virus is resurgent.
However, in a paper on future virus planning last night, Mrs Longfield insisted that keeping schools open was essential to safeguarding children’s futures.
Her briefing paper said schools should be the ‘absolute priority’, adding: ‘Education should be prioritised over other sectors – first to open, last to close.
‘When only a limited amount of social interaction is feasible, the amount accounted for by education must be protected at the expense of other sectors/activities.’
The commissioner said she believed that reducing Covid-19 transmission in the community was very important ‘but it should not be automatically assumed that this requires closing schools – except as a last resort’.
The paper suggested that, with rapid testing of pupils and teachers, any confirmed Covid-19 cases and their close contacts could be isolated without necessarily having to send entire classes or year groups home.
Mrs Longfield said that if schools do have to close for most pupils, they must remain open for children of key workers and vulnerable children.
She insisted this group should be renamed ‘priority children’ and a concerted effort must be made to work with these families to increase attendance.
The paper also suggested that ministers hold a press conference aimed at children – and youngsters should be allowed to participate and submit questions.
Mrs Longfield said: ‘Too often during the first lockdown children were an after-thought.
‘Despite the welcome decision to keep schools open for vulnerable children, too few attended.
'Those schools that did bring back more children before the summer holidays often found classes were only half-full. That must change in September.
‘The Government’s promise that all children will be back to school after the summer holidays is a step in the right direction.
'However, if a second wave occurs, children must be at the heart of coronavirus planning.
'That means schools must be the first to reopen and the last to close during any local lockdowns.
‘Regular testing must be also in place for teachers and pupils to reassure parents. If the choice has to be made in a local area about whether to keep pubs or schools open, then schools must always take priority.’
Paul Whiteman, of school leaders’ union NAHT, agreed that it was vital to get children back to school as soon as possible.
He added: ‘The success of September’s return to school rests as much on what happens outside the school gates as within.
'The Government needs to ensure that everyone knows what actions they should be taking to keep everyone safe – we’re all going to need to work together to be successful.’
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: ‘Getting all children back into the classroom full-time at the start of next month is a national priority – as this is the best place for them to be.
'Our detailed guidance sets out protective measures for schools to implement ahead of a full return in September.’