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The thorny issue of whether children should go back to school

Should children go back to school? Is it safe for them to venture out of their homes and sit in a classroom with their friends? And is it safe for the adults around them? These questions have formed part of the debate around Coronavirus ever since lockdown was announced on 23 March, and were thrust back into the spotlight when the government confirmed that pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 can go back to school from 1 June. This follows a number of other countries: young children have started going back to school in France, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and the Netherlands, while in Denmark nurseries and primary schools have been open for a month. In Estonia, Iceland and Sweden, meanwhile, schools have remained open throughout.

The Government’s announcement has invited controversy and opposition from some quarters. Parents, meanwhile, are understandably concerned and conflicted. A recent survey found that only 1 in 5 parents would follow the government’s public health advice, a similar proportion would only listen to the advice from teachers, while 1 in 10 parents were in favour of keeping their children at home until everyone at their child’s school has been vaccinated. On the other hand, a third of parents responding to the survey indicated that they did not feel confident supporting their child’s learning at home.  Parents were more likely to report being concerned about the effects of isolation on their child than the risk of someone in their family catching Covid-19.

The government says it is “following the science”, but there are limits to how far this strategy can be effective as the science is neither deterministic nor conclusive. At present, the scientific evidence cannot offer any guarantees around whether children are at risk from Covid-19, and whether reopening schools is completely ‘safe’, and it is unlikely ever to provide such certainty. Yet decisions about returning children to school cannot wait until a vaccine is available. These decisions – and the debates around them – need to accept and respond to inherent uncertainties. A way forward is possible, but only if we continually learn and test, control risk in real time, and focus on what is more likely to be optimal for whom.