Getting our kids back to school is morally non-negotiable
As a former biology teacher, I should be heartened by the way that science dominated our national consciousness over the last year.
We have all learned a lot about epidemiology, virology, vaccines, drug trials and handling data as we’ve listened to some very impressive experts explaining the pandemic and the measures needed to tackle it. But although as a scientist I of course believe that understanding science is crucially important – we’ve seen that in the success of the vaccine roll out – I also know that ‘The Science’ is not a pillar of cloud guiding us through the desert, showing us the way to go at every twist and turn of the pandemic. Science can and does provide important information, but it can’t make decisions for us about how to balance the benefits and harms of the different measures we are taking to control the spread of COVID.
As I explain in a recent interview with UnHerd, these decisions are moral decisions and must take into account not only ‘hard data’ but also ideas about right and wrong, fairness, justice and compassion.
In 2021 it might seem a little old-fashioned to talk about morality, but although our ideas of morality – particularly personal morality – have changed significantly over the last century, our response to COVID-19 makes clear that in the UK we still have the same private and public conviction that we should ‘do the right thing’.
The decision to close schools last March was an example of this desire to act in a moral way. We did not know how COVID would affect children and so when the virus hit our shores at the beginning of 2020, our response had one aim: to preserve life. In the face of a novel disease with unknown consequences, we asked all sorts of very difficult and costly things of the general public in order to save the lives of others. This is the basic principle of morality, to choose to sacrifice your own interests as an individual for the direct benefit of someone else or the wider community.
And by and large, the general public have complied. We’ve put up with enormous changes to our daily lives and infringements on our freedom. We’ve stopped doing the things we love and many people are enduring tragic personal circumstances including loss of income, loneliness, even a withdrawal of care for their disabled children. We’ve closed our schools – twice - to all but a handful of young people, sacrificing months of education and support.
Our national response to this crisis demonstrates that we still very much believe in morality. Despite the obvious cost of the restrictions, polls show that most people accept that these stark measures are the correct moral response in an emergency where lives were at risk.
But as we reflect on the first year of our struggle against Coronavirus, we must decide how to respond in an equally moral way to the next stage of the pandemic. We know far more about this disease now, and far more about the impacts of the measures imposed to contain it and so we must decide whether harmful restrictions that were morally acceptable in the short term can also be morally justified in the longer term.
Fortunately, we now know that coronavirus poses very little threat to children and young people themselves. We have seen that closing schools has had serious consequences for our young people – not just in terms of their formal education, which for many was almost completely non-existent between March and September - but also on their emotional, social and physical development and well-being. Not only that, it has become clear just how much essential additional support that schools provide to wider society, from free school meals to safeguarding to supporting children with SEND.
As a former teacher, I know first-hand that that our schools offer so much more than the ‘three Rs’. Recent studies show a frightening increase in child mental health problems, eating disorders, self-harm and abuse and I have no doubt that many more serious harms will be revealed in the months to come.
We also know more about the impact of school closures on families. Closing schools seriously hampers parents’ ability to work, therefore throwing stress, anxiety and loss of income into the mix of negative consequences. An estimated 2million people – the majority of them women – are now unable to work effectively or productively and this has far reaching consequences for families, businesses and essential services across the UK. I know from personal experience just how impossible it is to work from home and simultaneously supervise children’s ‘education’. During the first lockdown, my younger children managed to complete around three worksheets in four months. The rest of the time they had to fend for themselves, they were lonely and learned very little.
The situation is of course far worse for families where parents can’t work from home, where there aren’t enough devices to go around, where housing is poor or where relationships are already strained. For some children, closing schools is a catastrophe.
As well as knowing that this disease is not dangerous to children, we also now know that the average age of death from the disease is 82, greater than life expectancy in most of the world. And we have reached a point where our vaccination programme is well advanced and the latest wave of infections is beginning to fall.
Reopening our schools for face-to-face teaching
In light of this new information about COVID and the measures used to contain it, it’s time to reconsider again the implications of keeping our children isolated at home. We must consider whether it morally right to continue to ask our children, those with their whole lives ahead of them, to sacrifice their education, their wellbeing, their future success and prosperity for those who have already lived the greater parts of their lives. Our children’s future is our future – our young people are our future doctors, nurses, parents, business leaders and funders of our public services. Even short-term school closures may have a long-term and irreparable impact on children and therefore a devastating impact on our future as a society.
Those who oppose the re-opening of schools cite concerns about the possible impact on infection rates, and it’s true that returning to face-to-face education may increase transmission. But just as we have judged that places of worship, support bubbles and work places are too important to remain closed despite the risks, I believe that we have now reached the point where the damage inflected by keeping schools closed outweighs the potential harms caused by opening them.
I am delighted that the Prime Minister has announced the intention to open schools from 8th March; I know it won’t be soon enough for many families, but it’s important that we all work together to deliver on this date, and I have written to the JCVI urging them to prioritise teachers and schools staff in the next phase of the vaccination programme. The evidence shows that teachers are no more at risk from coronavirus than many other occupations, but staff absence has a serious impact on our children’s education and we need to do whatever we can to end the revolving door of ‘bubble closures’.
Edmund Burke wrote famously that society is a contract ‘between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’. If we don’t urgently re-open our schools to all children, we will threaten the future of our whole society, breaking this contract between our past and our future. Getting our kids back to face-to-face education is now morally non-negotiable.