How long do we try and maintain two metre social distancing between children and young people, given this is one of the main barriers to enabling all pupils to return to school? It does not take a genius to work out that schools cannot accommodate pupils if they are to maintain a two-metre distance between one another. Despite accepting that children in Early Years groups will likely struggle to keep their distance, the restrictions on class sizes means it is impossible to accommodate all children in every year group to attend school on a full-time basis. Most schools would need to double in size, double their staff and double their resources in order to provide a full-time education to all children.
So, what is the answer? There have been suggestions of creating pop up schools similar to the Nightingale Hospitals, children attending school on a part time basis and completing the rest of their learning independently at home to enable all pupils to have some contact with their teachers in school, and suggestions that the current academic year be written off and repeated.
I wonder how feasible these options are. To create pop up schools will take time and money not only to build but to staff and resource such facilities. To provide part time education at home will require money spent on resourcing thousands of children with the equipment they need to successfully access remaining lessons online. Added to that is the growing chasm between those children and young people who have additional resources at home to support their learning such as private tuition and available parents, compared to children who have very little in the way of supported learning. None of these solutions address other fundamental factors of children attending school.
No amount of virtual lessons and printouts can replicate the benefits of being in a classroom where there is opportunity for face to face interaction and dialogue with a teacher, as well as the opportunity for interaction with peers. Many of us are also acutely aware of the role that school plays in supporting the health and wellbeing of vast numbers of vulnerable children. Children living in poverty for example have access to food when they are in school. Children living with abuse can experience respite from such atrocities during school hours and have access to support networks that may help to end abuse altogether.
During school closures, calls to services such as ChildLine and the NSPCC have increased and more recently there is concern over the rise in the number of young people being groomed online. As parents are encouraged to return to work thus leaving some children at home alone, when does online grooming lead to a young person venturing out to meet the person behind the online profile?
Schools remaining closed and operating at reduced capacity has huge implications not only for children and young people’s academic attainment and economic prospects, but their physical and mental wellbeing. The longer schools remain closed, the greater the urgency to weigh up the risks attached to schools reopening versus continuing to keep their doors closed. Some points to consider include the fact that as some children return, children in other year groups, particularly those left unattended through parents returning to work, may well begin to meet up outside of school. Is it not safer for those young people to be in school as opposed to in places where they are potentially at greater risk of being harmed by dangers other than coronavirus; getting knocked down by a bus or car for example, being abused, using drugs and alcohol to help fill the void created by not being in school, engaging in criminal activities. Knowing that there are children being abused and children living in poverty, is it not criminal that such children continue to be deprived of going to school and instead left in an environment where their home life poses a greater risk to their survival compared to the risk of them catching coronavirus or being seriously ill from it.
And what about the impact of asking children and young people to social distance. Regardless of how well some children may adapt to such rules, how much children currently attending school report feeling happy about being there, it will have an impact on their experience and enjoyment of school the longer it is enforced. By asking children to maintain a two metre distance from one another, we are asking them to fight against and refrain from natural urges to get close to their peers, to socialise and play in ways that feel instinctual and age appropriate, and which are an important part of social development. Children need to be allowed to practice social norms and re-enact real life scenarios; to problem solve together and create their own ‘rules of play,’ and free play between children provides an opportunity for them to do so.
For adolescents, how they interact and socialise with one another is different to that of younger children. The relationships they form are of huge importance and significance, often feeling more important than that of their relationships with family. To ask teenagers to remain apart from one another is depriving them of opportunities to interact in ways that are a valuable part of their social and emotional development.
Ultimately the longer social distancing measures are in place for pupils in school, the greater the risks of long-term effects on their development. We need to remember that for some children their only contact with people their own age will be at school. Children without siblings are likely to feel increasingly isolated and lonely. The longer such isolation continues, the greater the risk for feelings of anxiety and depression to arise which long term, will impact on reintegration with peers and wider society when the time allows.
Given the evidence to suggest that children are at low risk of becoming seriously ill with coronavirus, and uncertainty over whether they transmit the virus to adults, one option is for schools to reopen fully to all pupils by abandoning social distancing measures for children, with the expectation that the adults in schools will protect themselves by remaining two metres apart from pupils and colleagues, and use PPE where they feel it necessary. This may be our only option if we are to take a holistic approach in assessing the reopening of schools to all children.
ChildLine – www.childline.org.uk/
NSPCC – www.nspcc.org.uk/
Coronavirus: Fears over online grooming of children in lockdown – www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-52999552/coronavirus-fears-over-online-grooming-of-children-in-lockdown