Coronavirus: Schools might be back in September, but the real problem is in the longer term

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Beyond the practical challenges raised today, the bigger concern is that education may continue to be disrupted into next year.

    In September, all pupils will need to go back to school, the education secretary said today – ending, for millions of England’s schoolchildren, a six-month shutdown of formal education.

    Gavin Williamson announced there would be no requirement for social distancing of two metres, or even one metre, between children in the classroom.

    Hard enough to achieve anyway, especially at break times, it requires a pipeline of extra teachers and classrooms which most schools simply do not have.

    
Coronavirus: Schools might be back in September, but the real problem is in the longer term

    The clear message from the latest guidance to schools is that getting back to the classroom, where pupils’ education, health and wellbeing needs are best met, now trumps the risk of infection.

    Many MPs and parents will feel this should have happened earlier, and that the government dropped the ball on schools while focusing on the NHS and reopening pubs and shops.

    After all, social distancing between children has been dropped in many other European countries.

    But, inevitably, there are safety concerns about how to operate “bubbles” containing whole classes or even year groups, which can comprise more than 200 pupils in larger schools.

    How does this work for children taking school buses? They should keep their distance “where possible”.

    What about children with siblings in a different year? If the class bubble of one child is told to isolate, because of an outbreak, isn’t the bubble compromised?

    
Coronavirus: Schools might be back in September, but the real problem is in the longer term

    There are no easy answers, it is simply case by case.

    With the scientific advice suggesting it is adults who have most to fear from COVID-19, teachers and other staff have been strongly advised to distance from each other and pupils as far as possible.

    But will it be possible?

    Most schools have been open throughout the pandemic, for children of key workers and the most vulnerable.

    Teachers know when it comes to reducing contact, they have to make do within their school’s size and circumstances.

    For those in vulnerable groups, or advised to shield, this will be a major concern.

    
Coronavirus: Schools might be back in September, but the real problem is in the longer term

    But behind practical questions about social distancing is a much bigger time bomb.

    All the evidence show it is those who are disadvantaged and tend to fall behind with their schooling who have been most affected by the lockdown.

    They have spent fewer hours learning online than better-off peers because they may lack the laptops, internet access, space or support to do so.

    The quality of home schooling offered by schools has been varied, from live lessons to hardly any contact at all.

    Headteachers I’ve spoken to have scrambled to contact children who have fallen off the radar altogether.

    
Coronavirus: Schools might be back in September, but the real problem is in the longer term

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    The truth is home schooling may not be finished in September, as scientists warn of local lockdowns and the risk of a second spike.

    Mr Williamson said schools should prepare for this possibility.

    But for schools in the most deprived areas, online learning will never be easy and there is a no guarantee that education won’t continue to be disrupted into next year.

    So schools will be back, finally.

    But the longer-term fear is that this isn’t over – and some children’s life chances still risk being severely hit.

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