Coronavirus: New school rules could undermine lockdown and put poorest families at greatest risk, experts warn
he decision to include children without access to laptops or adequate internet connections as among those who should go to school during the new national lockdown risks spreading coronavirus among the most deprived communities, school leaders, unions and epidemiologists have warned.
Around 1.8 million children across the UK are estimated to not have the necessary devices or broadband speeds for remote learning.
Under the government’s newly confirmed guidance, such pupils are deemed vulnerable and can return to classrooms.
But the ruling has raised concerns that having so many students back in schools – many of them from poorer families – will both undermine efforts to reduce Covid-19 transmission and lead directly to greater infection rates among the least well off.
“You will see tens of thousands more pupils in school this time compared to last spring,” says Lorraine Tonks, principal at Chetwynd Primary Academy in Nottingham. “And, even with schools doing everything to become Covid-secure, that inevitably means a greater risk of infection to teachers and to the families of those children in school. This isn’t a lockdown.”
At her 420-pupil school, she estimates that, with children of key workers also attending, almost half of all youngsters will be on site by the start of next week – “and we are by no means alone in those percentages”.
The Department for Education’s proposed solution is – and has been since last spring’s first lockdown – to supply all children in need with the necessary technology.
But a target of dishing out 1.5 million devices has not been met. Nearly a year on, only 600,000 have been distributed. Schools across the country have not received their promised quota.
In Bradford – the 13th most deprived area in England – Jane Girt, principal at the city’s Carlton Bolling College, says she expected an extra 200 students attending classes as a result of the failure. “Which to me,” she told the BBC, “defeats the whole object [of lockdown].”
In Hull, meanwhile, Peter Clark, the city council’s cabinet member for learning and skills, questions the apparent contradiction of a stay-at-home message in which so many pupils continued as normal.
“On the one hand we’re being told children are vectors of this new variant,” he says. “On the other, we’re in a lockdown where huge numbers of children will, it appears, still be going to schools because the government hasn’t got the technology to them. It doesn’t square up.”
The families set to suffer most, he added, would be from those communities which “have already suffered the worst: the poorest”.
Unions too have criticised the situation, and urged the government to increase the speed with which it is getting computers to those in need.
“The purpose of the national lockdown is to reduce social interaction in order to help bring downward pressure on the escalating rates of virus transmission,” Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT union, said.
“This national lockdown will be wasted if it does not result in substantially fewer people being infected with the virus, and that can only happen if the vast majority of people stay at home.
“The government must put the resources into place to ensure that every child is able to continue to access learning in safety from their home. It must take action to ensure that access to remote education and the measures to protect lives do not depend on household circumstances and income.
“Families on low incomes also need to be fully supported to be able to stay at home without suffering further financial hardship.”
Epidemiologists also questioned the decision.
“The more you can avoid contact between people, the more you can reduce transmissions and stem the tide of infection, so, by that measure alone, the fewer people you have in a classroom, the quicker we are able to control the virus,” says Dr Nathalie MacDermott, lecturer in infectious diseases at King’s College London.
But she added: “You have to balance that against the need for children – for their well-being and their future – to have access to education.”
Indeed, in attempting to strike that balance, some head teachers have said the government is right to get pupils without laptops back into schools.
Chris Parkinson, executive principal of the LiFE Multi-Academy Trust which runs five centres in Leicestershire, stressed that many of those without laptops would be those already considered vulnerable – and, therefore, already in school – anyway.
“I can’t imagine too many head teachers shrugging their shoulders and not wanting these pupils in schools,” he says. “There is a balance to be struck but it is precisely those students without this technology who are those that are in most danger of falling behind during periods of remote learning. For their well-being, I think it is right to have them in schools.”