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Boris Johnson says reopening schools next month is a 'moral duty' and a 'national priority'

Boris Johnson today throws down the gauntlet to union leaders blocking the return of pupils to classrooms by insisting the country has a ‘moral duty’ to reopen schools next month.

In an exclusive article for The Mail on Sunday, the Prime Minister declares that a resumption of normal teaching is now his ‘national priority’.

The rallying cry will further crank up the political pressure over the issue, which is fast becoming a totemic test of the Government’s ability to reboot the economy and move the country safely out of lockdown.

Mr Johnson writes: ‘Now that we know enough to reopen schools to all pupils safely, we have a moral duty to do so.’ 

The rallying cry will further crank up the political pressure over the issue, which is fast becoming a totemic test of the Government’s ability to reboot the economy and move the country safely out of lockdown

The rallying cry will further crank up the political pressure over the issue, which is fast becoming a totemic test of the Government’s ability to reboot the economy and move the country safely out of lockdown

Pupils were sent home at the start of lockdown in March, and only the children of key workers have been able to enjoy a measure of normal classroom teaching since then.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has come under intense pressure as critics warned that the lay-off was widening the educational divide between rich and poor, and preventing many parents from returning to the workplace.

Mr Johnson’s words come after Dr Mary Bousted, head of the National Education Union, urged schools to ignore ‘threatening noises’ from the Government and refuse to reopen if they feel it is unsafe.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has come under intense pressure as critics warned that the lay-off was widening the educational divide between rich and poor, and preventing many parents from returning to the workplace

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has come under intense pressure as critics warned that the lay-off was widening the educational divide between rich and poor, and preventing many parents from returning to the workplace

Many parents have been angered after schools told them they will educate their children only until lunchtime on at least one day of the week, on the grounds that they need time to implement extra safety requirements such as deep cleaning and staggered break times.

In other developments:

  • This newspaper has established that there has not been single case of a pupil infecting a teacher with the virus anywhere in the world; 
  • New research laid bare the damaging educational impact on pupils who have missed schooling during the lockdown; 
  • The coronavirus death toll rose by 55 yesterday, to 46,556, compared to a rise of 74 last Saturday, while 758 new infections were reported, 13 fewer than a week ago; 
  • Scientific advisers warned that the UK-wide reproduction rate, R, is between 0.8 and 1.0, the point at which the virus starts spreading exponentially again; 
  • Oxford University researchers developing a vaccine were embroiled in an ethics row about whether to deliberately infect human volunteers – and warned that although there was a 50 per cent chance of a jab being available next year, it was likely to be only partially effective and carry side-effects; 
  • A survey found that barely half of the adult population is committed to being immunised against Covid-19; 
  • France is on the brink of joining the list of countries from where British travellers will have to go into quarantine upon their return; 
  • Young people in Preston were being urged ‘don’t kill Granny’ as the city was subjected to new lockdown measures following a spike in infections; 
  • Up to 16 children and staff were forced to isolate at home after a coronavirus outbreak at a nursery in Bury, which has also been put into local lockdown.

The Prime Minister stressed the importance of getting all children back in school in September during a series of No 10 meetings last week, emphasising his expectation that education should be ‘the absolutely last sector’ to be asked to close in local lockdowns – with businesses such as shops, pubs and restaurants forced to close first.

In his article, Mr Johnson argues that it is ‘crucial’ for ‘their welfare, their health and for their future’ that children should return to the classrooms full-time. He writes: ‘We can do it – and we will do it. Social justice demands it.’

He spoke of the ‘uplifting sight… as millions of parents rose to the challenge of educating their children’ amid the added pressures of lockdown, but said that had to end.








Highlighting the damage to children from poorer families in particular, Mr Johnson says: ‘Time spent out of class means lower average academic attainment, with a lasting effect on future life chances. 

‘The less children are in school, the worse it is for their health. Sport England report one in three children has done less physical activity in lockdown, with many suffering from poorer mental health, including through reduced access to vital support.

‘Most painfully of all, the costs of school closure have fallen disproportionately on the most disadvantaged, the very children who need school the most.

‘Keeping our schools closed a moment longer than absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible.’

Mr Johnson’s words come after Dr Mary Bousted, head of the National Education Union, urged schools to ignore ‘threatening noises’ from the Government and refuse to reopen if they feel it is unsafe

Mr Johnson’s words come after Dr Mary Bousted, head of the National Education Union, urged schools to ignore ‘threatening noises’ from the Government and refuse to reopen if they feel it is unsafe

Last night, Mr Williamson said: ‘Schools are the best place for children’s education and wellbeing and that is why their return to the classroom next month is our priority. 

‘Every decision we have taken leading up to this point has been informed by the best scientific and medical advice. I believe the vast majority of teachers, parents and children would agree that now is not the time to bring the sacrifices of the last four months to a standstill.

‘The right measures are in place for all children to return to school in September. Let us come together to make sure that happens.’

 

Not a single confirmed case of a school pupil passing on coronavirus to their teacher exists anywhere in the world, says a leading expert 

By Stephen Adams, Medical Editor

No confirmed cases exist anywhere in the world of school pupils passing on Covid to their teachers, an expert has said.

All the available evidence points to children being poor spreaders of the virus, said Professor Mark Woolhouse, who cast doubt on the theory that reopening schools will trigger a deadly second wave.

Last week, a modelling forecast published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health warned that opening schools across the UK in September could lead to a tsunami of new cases, more than twice the size of the first wave.

But Prof Woolhouse said a second study published in the medical journal the same day, which found infected children in Australian schools had passed the virus on to hardly anyone, had been largely ignored.

During the first wave, 15 schools and ten nurseries in the state of New South Wales reported 27 cases where children or staff had attended while infectious with Covid-19. 

Fifteen of these ‘index’ cases were staff and 12 were children.

Class pledge: Boris Johnson on a visit to a Kent school last month

Class pledge: Boris Johnson on a visit to a Kent school last month

These 12 children were in close contact with 103 staff, found contact tracers. 

Only one of them was discovered to have passed the virus on to a member of staff in a single instance, although this is understood to have occurred in a nursery. 

Nor did infected children pass the virus on to their classmates to any great degree, with that happening in only two of 649 close contacts – a virus ‘attack rate’ of just 0.3 per cent. 

By contrast, the 15 infected staff members passed it on to 4.4 per cent of colleagues who were close contacts (to seven out of 160).

Prof Woolhouse, head of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University, said: ‘Science progresses by people publishing research. So what we do as carefully as we possibly can is scan what’s been published in the literature to see if there are any reported cases, in this case of a child transmitting to a teacher in the classroom.

‘The fact that there aren’t any that we can find, and there still aren’t, doesn’t mean that it’s not possible in principle and doesn’t mean that it won’t happen on occasion. 

Prof Woolhouse, head of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University, said: ‘Science progresses by people publishing research.'

Prof Woolhouse, head of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University, said: ‘Science progresses by people publishing research.’

‘But it does suggest that out of all the ways that we see and have found this virus to transmit – and remember, there are thousands and thousands of transmission events that have been inferred [from contact tracing] – out of all those thousands, still we can’t find a single one involving a child transmitting to a teacher in a classroom.’

He added: ‘Even if this virus doesn’t spread easily among the children, it certainly will spread among staff if it gets the opportunity. 

‘The evidence so far is that the most dangerous room in the school is not the classroom, it’s the staff room. So schools need to pay attention to that, and not take their eye off the right ball.’

Prof Woolhouse advises the Government on coronavirus as a member of the Scientific Pandemic Group on Modelling (SPI-M), although he stressed he was speaking in a personal capacity. 

Academics concluded reopening schools without improving contact tracing could trigger a second wave up to 2.3 times the size of the first, leading to 250,000 more deaths

Academics concluded reopening schools without improving contact tracing could trigger a second wave up to 2.3 times the size of the first, leading to 250,000 more deaths

His comments come amid renewed calls for caution by teaching unions, with the National Education Union urging schools to ignore ‘threatening noises’ from the Government and to refuse to reopen if they feel it is unsafe.

The unions will have felt emboldened to speak out by last week’s modelling study, by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and University College London (UCL). 

Academics concluded reopening schools without improving contact tracing could trigger a second wave up to 2.3 times the size of the first, leading to 250,000 more deaths.

Prof Woolhouse said that apocalyptic outcome was ‘highly unlikely given the current evidence’. 

He added: ‘I’m slightly worried that, just through an accident of timing, schools will get blamed for pushing the R number over 1. But all activity can contribute to R rising, not just schools.’

 

Missing out on school is disaster that lasts forever – as the huge damage inflicted on youngsters by a long break from the classroom is laid bare by several new studies

By Julie Henry

The huge damage inflicted on youngsters by a long break from school has been laid bare by several new studies.

Interrupted schooling has deep and long-lasting effects on children, according to Oxford University researchers who used data from school closures in a disaster zone. They said the study ‘has relevance for other disasters, including the Covid-19 pandemic’.

The study found that children’s test scores in areas of Pakistan hit by a 2005 earthquake were between one- and-a-half and two years behind their peers in untouched areas. 

Those affected face losing 15 per cent of their earnings every year for the rest of their lives.

In another study, US researchers looked at the effects of the ‘summer slide’ – when children forget over the long holidays what they have previously learned – to estimate the impact of school closures caused by the coronavirus.

It said students are likely to return to the classroom with less than 50 per cent of the knowledge and skills they had in maths.

Meanwhile, a major UK study into the long-term consequences of the Covid crisis on the younger generation is being undertaken by Exeter University.

In another study, US researchers looked at the effects of the ‘summer slide’ – when children forget over the long holidays what they have previously learned – to estimate the impact of school closures caused by the coronavirus (file photo)

In another study, US researchers looked at the effects of the ‘summer slide’ – when children forget over the long holidays what they have previously learned – to estimate the impact of school closures caused by the coronavirus (file photo)

Dr Lee Elliot Major, the university’s professor of social mobility, said: ‘What is already clear is that the drastic losses in learning will have profound impacts on the lives of many children and young people.

‘Every extra week away from face-to-face teaching adds to the cumulative damage over a lifetime. We need to assess the short-term risks of containing the virus against the longer-term, but in many ways more profound, risks of damaging the prospects for a whole generation.’

Natalie Perera, executive director of the independent Education Policy Institute (EPI), said: ‘Pupils across the country have suffered huge learning loss since the lockdown began, with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils hit the hardest by school closures.

‘The period of disruption faced by schools is likely to have increased the achievement gap between the poorest pupils and the rest, which is already 18 months of learning by the end of compulsory education.

‘The Government must offer maximum support to schools so that they are able to continue with pupils’ education in a safe and secure environment.’

Maura Regan, chief executive officer of Bishop Hogarth Catholic Education Trust, which runs 18 academies in the North-East, told The Mail on Sunday that schools ‘owe it to society’ to have staff back working so that children’s education can get back on track and parents can return to work.

Interrupted schooling has deep and long-lasting effects on children, according to Oxford University researchers (file photo)

Interrupted schooling has deep and long-lasting effects on children, according to Oxford University researchers (file photo)

‘In essence we need to get children in school in September. I’d like to see us back full time and back permanently full time,’ she said.

‘There is a balance to be struck between the risk and the priority of getting children back and the economy going.

‘But the detrimental impact on children, especially the most vulnerable who might not have the drive or the parental support, is huge.’

Other research shows that the least well-off children have suffered the most from being out of school. 

An Institute for Fiscal Studies report found children from better-off households are spending 30 per cent more time each day on educational activities than children from the poorest fifth of homes.

How children in Europe are returning to classes 

GERMANY 

The reopening of schools after the holidays is being staggered state by state. Mecklenburg-West Pomerania was the first to welcome children back but two of its schools closed last week after a teacher and pupil tested positive for Covid-19. 

Officials said it was precautionary and there was no evidence that the infection had spread. Students in the state are divided into age-group bubbles. Masks must be worn in corridors.

FRANCE

Attendance for primary and some secondary school children became mandatory for the last two weeks of June after previously being voluntary. 

The Ministry of National Education says nothing will prevent schools returning after the summer holidays. 

Pupils aged 11 and over must wear masks, but social distancing will no longer be compulsory when it is ‘not materially possible or does not accommodate all of the students’.

DENMARK

Schools began reopening in April – thanks to Denmark’s low death rate – with staggered arrival times, no assemblies, smaller classes and lessons are held outside if possible.

BELGIUM

School for the under-12s will continue even in a second wave, while older pupils will attend school for four days each week, with a half-day of virtual teaching.

NORWAY

Schools reopened in April with a ‘traffic light’ system – green means schools will have everyday hours, yellow means some social distancing measures, and red reduces the number of children per classroom. 

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