Scientists have cautioned against bringing forward the reopening of schools in England, warning it would be “a recipe for disaster” while prevalence of the virus remains high.
The warnings came as Boris Johnson faced sustained pressure from his own MPs to follow Scotland’s lead after the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced a phased return to the classroom later this month.
Scotland’s youngest children, including nurseries and primary pupils in years one, two and three, are expected to be back in the classroom full-time from 22 February, plus small numbers of secondary school children who need to complete practical work in class for national qualifications.
In England, by contrast, Boris Johnson has said schools – which are currently open to only 15% of children who are either regarded as “vulnerable” or whose parents are critical workers – will not open more fully until 8 March at the earliest.
Faced with growing disquiet from some senior Conservatives, the prime minister told MPs on Wednesday that tackling the shortfall in children’s learning created by the pandemic was his top priority.
“Of all the challenges now facing the country, it is remedying the damage to children’s education – yes of course we have to clear up the backlog in the NHS, we have problems in the courts – but it is education that is going to be the focus of this government, and repairing the differential learning that has taken place.”
Robert Halfon, a Conservative who chairs the Commons education committee is among those pushing for schools to open sooner. He tweeted: “Given that Scotland is likely to open some schools in the next couple of weeks, and given Public Health England say primary schools are ‘safe to open soon’, surely England can lead by example and at least open primary schools before 8 March.”
In an interview with the Guardian, Prof Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, pointed out, however, that according to the latest Office for National Statistics data, the overall prevalence of Covid in Scotland is currently half that in England.
“The issue with schools is not opening them, it’s keeping them open,” she said. “If you keep having cases, you will be having bubbles of 50 kids going home repeatedly and that’s not sustainable education. You are better off keeping them closed longer to get your numbers down and then opening in a more sustainable way.”
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a senior lecturer in epidemiology at Queen Mary University of London. urged the prime minister to resist pressure to reopen schools any sooner, warning that even 8 March looked unrealistic.
She said levels of community transmission were still high and cases were not declining sufficiently rapidly. “We are in a very, very precarious position. Parents and children have made huge sacrifices because of schools being closed to most children. It’s very important we don’t squander this.”
Gurdasani said evidence suggested that primary school children were two times more likely than adults to be the first case in a household and once infected they were two times more likely to transmit than adults. Putting children back into schools while community transmission remained so high, was “a recipe for disaster”, she said.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Everybody wants to see all pupils back in school as soon as possible, but it is of critical importance that this happens when scientists believe it is safe to do so without triggering an immediate increase in infection rates and necessitating another period of restricted opening.
“The plan in Scotland for a phased return from 22 February has clearly been made on the basis of the evidence there, and that does not automatically mean that England should follow suit if the evidence is different. What we have to avoid is another spike in coronavirus cases, and a revolving door of school opening.”