Schools must not reopen until it is safe to do so and the government must launch a public campaign to convince parents their children won’t be at risk, the shadow education secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, has said.
Ministers see reopening schools to more pupils as a crucial step on the way to allowing people to return to work when lockdown restrictions are lifted. But Long-Bailey said they would first need to persuade parents. “There needs to be a proper strategy: they can’t just open schools and expect everybody to go back to school without a proper public health campaign convincing parents that it’s safe to do it,” she said.
Far fewer pupils are attending schools than ministers expected when they closed them on 20 March to all but the children of designated key workers, with many parents presumably keeping children at home for fear they could catch or spread Covid-19.
Long-Bailey said parents and teachers would expect to see stringent measures in place to control the spread of the disease before children return. “You need to have mass community testing – not just those who are going to school – so that everyone’s being regularly tested. Then you’ve got to have your personal protective equipment (PPE) to back it up, where appropriate. Then you’ve got to have more frequent and more intensive cleaning of schools,” she said.
Asked whether it was feasible for most pupils to return after spring half-term in June, as some in Whitehall have suggested, she said, “it all depends on the science”.
“Life is the most important thing, and this is the thing that I’ve found concerning over the past few weeks. Obviously everyone is worried about the economy, and it’s right to be worried about it – but there is nothing more important than protecting human life. So if it’s not safe to send people to school, we shouldn’t be sending people to school.”
England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, said on Monday that experts on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) were reviewing evidence on the role of children in spreading the disease, as they prepare to make recommendations to the government about which lockdown measures can safely be eased.
The lockdown is due to be reviewed by Thursday 7 May, and the government has set a list of five tests, including availability of PPE, testing and the avoidance of a second peak in the virus – which the prime minister has called a “wave of death”.
Long-Bailey was handed the education brief after coming second to Keir Starmer in the Labour leadership race: making her one few Jeremy Corbyn allies to remain in the shadow cabinet.
Like all members of the Labour frontbench she has been in touch with her Conservative opposite number, Gavin Williamson, and will be briefed by civil servants in the coming days as part of the government’s bid to involve opposition parties in decisions about managing the crisis.
Williamson is due to appear before the education select committee on Wednesday. Its chair, the Conservative MP Robert Halfon, has called for teachers to be given priority access to testing and PPE.
Long-Bailey listed several questions the government should answer before schools can return. “What happens to vulnerable children who’ve got health conditions? What happens to staff who are at risk? What about people who live with people who are at risk – are they going to be exempted from coming back?” she said.
The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said on Sunday it was “inconceivable” that schools could return without some social distancing measures in place.
But Long-Bailey cast doubt on that idea. “There’s no way you can socially distance, particularly small kids in a school, never mind keep the parents apart from each other at the school gates when they’re going to pick them up. So it’s quite difficult,” she said.
And she urged the government to consider making special dispensation in next year’s exams for the time students will have missed.
“When they do go back to school, you’re not just going to have children who need to catch up, you’re going to have children who’ve probably had severe psychological trauma from what’s happened – particularly if they’ve lost family members, but even just being on lockdown for this period of time it’s going to be difficult for them to get back into the swing of things,” she said.
“So they’re going to need that extra help. But in terms of catching up, to expect teachers and students to put that much pressure on themselves to catch up on this time, it’s just not feasible – and the assessments that kids have to take, there has to be allowance made – whether it’s a GCSE or an A-level – to not have to force them to make up for that lost chunk of time.”