Three Cambridgeshire-based parents have petitioned Education Secretary Gavin Williamson “to reopen all schools without delay”.
The founders of Us for Them – Liz Cole, Christine Brett and Molly Kingsley – say that “school closures are inconsistent with the rights of a child to an education”, and “social distancing for children is contrary to their human rights”. More than 9,000 parents, educators and mental health campaigners have signed the letter, which has joined another letter from 200 UK academics, scientists and researchers – including 14 University of Cambridge academics – saying that “the government must change social distancing advice in such a way that summer play schemes and education providers of all types are able to open, and that does not infringe human rights, which the current rules appear to do”.
Christine Brett, responding to enquiries from the Cambridge Independent, said: “There have been 236 cases of the virus in Cambridge and 1,241 – all ages – in the whole of Cambridgeshire. Is it reasonable to deny the 14,870 pupils in Cambridgeshire an education on this basis?
“There are respectful safety measures already in place, which are sensible in schools including ill children staying at home, regular hand washing, sneezing into a tissue, or an elbow and thorough cleaning of premises – levels one to four on the governments’ hierarchy of infection control – which do not harm children, unlike the fifth measure of social distancing.”
The petition comes as the government, which attempted – controversially – to reopen primary school on June 1, has rescheduled, with Williamson telling MPs the government is “working to bring all children back to school in September”.
The timing is important – the longer the closure of schools endures, the worse will be the mental health damage to some pupils and, for those without computers, the huge gap in educational attainment may prove impossible to bridge. This was described as “a chasm” by Netherhall School principal Chris Tooley. A recent report added that BAME children are suffering mental health issues far worse than their white peers.
However, putting children in harm’s way is also against their human rights. Which one should take precedence?
“It is a question of balancing all the risk of the virus and the harms of the measures introduced to prevent it,” says Christine. “Leading paediatricians at The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have said that the risk of the virus to and from children is very low.
“Harm has already been done to children. Within a month of school closures children with 67 per cent of children had suffered with their mental health and a quarter had suffered physical health problems. We believe that children have already suffered from these closures and we should not exacerbate this damage. Over 120 leading child health and clinical psychology experts have said that it is crucial to remove social distancing measures so that children can interact with each other and re-establish friendships to help them recover. Children learn through play, which is vital for their wellbeing, and their social and emotional development.”
Head teachers also have to listen to parents’ concerns, says John Cattermole, Shirley Primary School headteacher.
“We did a survey for parents telling them what school would be like,” Mr Cattermole told the Cambridge Independent. “We did a survey for parents telling them what school would be like. About half said they wanted their children to come back, but we also got a sense that they didn’t want us to rush things because of fairly high levels of parental anxiety. About half said they wanted their children to come back, but we also got a sense that they didn’t want us to rush things because of fairly high levels of parental anxiety.
“I’m not against schools reopening. I just feel it has felt a bit rushed and I don’t think the government has listened enough to school leaders.
“The rate of infection nationally is still close to R1, which is when the virus spreads exponentially. Why not wait until the infection rate comes down and then reopen schools?”
A spokesperson for Cambridgeshire County Council said: “We are following government guidance to do everything we can to prevent the risk of infection. The safety of our children, families and school staff remain our number one priority.”
At the Department of Education, a spokesperson said: “Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic our decisions have been based on the best scientific and medical advice, with the welfare of children and staff at the heart of all considerations.
“We have placed significance on mental health in our planning framework for schools and launched a new training module to support schools to teach about wellbeing issues as part of the health curriculum as children go back.
“We have also provided over £100million to boost remote education, including providing devices to those children who need it most. Our £1billion Covid catch-up package will further ensure children have the support they need to deal with the impact of coronavirus on their education.”
Daniel Zeichner, MP for Cambridge (Labour), said: “I want to see all pupils return to school safely as soon as possible. It is clear the Government has not made education a priority. Where for example is the effort to find additional space to teach students? I have spoken to empty theatres and community centres who would we ready to help. Labour has repeatedly called on the Government to urgently convene a task force across the sector to develop detailed plans in collaboration with trade unions, local authorities, parents organisations, scientific and health experts.”
The University of Cambridge was contacted for comment.
The Us For Them letter in full can be read here.
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