Thursday, 21 May 2020

Campaign reply - re-opening of schools

Thank you to all those constituents who have been in touch regarding the re-opening of schools. There have been several different campaigns regarding this proposal, and I hope to address as many of these concerns as possible within this post.

I do understand this is a worrying time for many people. As we emerge from the lockdown there are many questions and concerns regarding the proposed changes as none of us have ever lived through a situation quite like this.

Firstly, please let me say the government continues to follow the expert medical and scientific advice in all the decisions that are made. The proposal to re-open school is only being considered because we believe it is safe to do so. The spread of the virus is largely under control and the infection rate and death rate has been falling steadily for several weeks. It is only in this context that these decisions are being taken. Protecting the health and safety of the British public is, and must always be, our number one priority. That goal has guided the Government’s actions so far, and will continue to do so, both now and in the future. The welfare of children and staff is at the heart of all decisions being taken on this proposal.

We are now entering a period where the negative risks to children not attending school is as much of a concern than the potential risks to children attending school. We are very sadly seeing a rise in rates of depression among children and there are many vulnerable children who have had no contact with their peers, teachers and other key members of their support networks throughout this very challenging period. We are also extremely mindful of the significant negative impacts of poverty, both in the short and long-term, for children whose parents are unable to work or who could lose their jobs due to the coronavirus. Whilst the government has put in place unprecedented packages of support, targeting those on the lowest incomes, there will inevitably be those families who fall through the gaps. By increasing school provision, many parents will be able to either increase or take up work which has a range of emotional as well as financial benefits.

When we initially closed schools, the estimated infection rate within the community was between 4-10%. Schools were therefore shut to reduce the number of social interactions between non-household members and help to reduce the spread of the virus. We now believe the infection rate within the community is 0.27% and whilst this means of course there is still a risk, it is significantly lower. It is also important to keep in mind that even before Coronavirus, deadly infectious diseases existed within the population and no infectious disease has ever been completely eradicated, with the exception of smallpox. As we now believe the risks to children’s wellbeing and long-term prospects of not attending school is higher than the risk posed by the spread of the Coronavirus, we are looking to introduce a phased return to schools. This does not mean we expect every school to open or every pupil to attend, and this will be not be implemented without significant safeguards in place. All of this is dependent on the continued progress of our fight against the virus and any further steps to ease the lockdown will only be taken if it is safe to do so.

The government guidance regarding the reopening of schools is also available online and is continually being reviewed and updated, as appropriate. I would encourage any constituents with concerns to read the guidance on these proposals. The link to this guidance is as follows:

It is worth noting that other countries have opened their schools, some did so several weeks ago. They have managed to operate schools safely and there have been no reported adverse effects from this.  

Early years are vital in children’s educational development, which is also in part why the government is looking to open early years settings first. Neurological research shows that early years plays a key role in children’s brain development including building important skills such as socialising with other children and adults, communication and language as well as forming the foundations for autonomy and independence, and developing their personality and preferences. School settings are designed to promote positive development and teachers are professionally trained to provide children with the best educational start, supported by pastoral staff whose priority is the welfare of all pupils. All teachers and senior leads in schools within Cornwall also have access to high level professional training on emotional resilience and mental health and at least two staff from each school are trained to deliver one to one and group sessions for any children who may benefit from additional support. There is also further support available through the HeadStart Kernow programme. Whilst I do of course appreciate parents’ concerns about their children returning to schools, and I would like to reassure all parents the government will not be forcing parents to send their children to school, I believe it is important for them to keep all of the above in mind when making this decision.

With regard to specific queries about what measures are being put into place to keep all pupils and staff safe, the government has produced specific guidance for schools which is also available online using the link below:

This outlines the recommended practices schools can adopt to minimise infection, such as regularly cleaning surfaces and encouraging good hygiene (regular hand-washing) as well as making simple steps to reduce the number of pupils and staff mixing, such as changing classroom layouts and staggered break times. As I have already highlighted, the government is not expecting all pupils to return to school immediately, and anyone who is shielding would of course be encouraged to stay at home. In some cases, it may be necessary for providers to introduce a temporary cap on numbers to ensure that safety is prioritised. The recommendation is for every school to undertake a risk assessment before making any decision regarding reopening. For parents of children who are vulnerable, but not in the shielding category, they should seek medical advice as to whether it is safe for their child to return to a school setting.

The safety of children, staff and their families is of the utmost importance and therefore schools would only reopen if it is safe to do so. The government is seeking constructive engagement with teachers and unions to draw up further guidance. It is important to highlight a significant number of schools have remained open during the lockdown for children of critical workers and vulnerable children and have therefore already put in place protective measures, including ensuring pupils do not attend if they or a member of their household has symptoms, keeping children in small groups and minimising contact, and cleaning surfaces more frequently. This proposal is looking to enhance and expand this offer, in a safe and sensible way.

I would also like to take this opportunity to again thank all those teachers and other school staff for their dedication and hard-work in providing this essential service for vulnerable children and children of key workers. Schools have also been continuing to provide Free School Meals for the most vulnerable families and I am grateful for all the staff involved in ensuring these children have had this vital support.

The government recognises it is impossible to expect young children to socially distance, which is why we are looking at using the ‘bubble’ model where children returning to school will be grouped with a small number of other pupils and staff. They will effectively become an extended household, and if anyone within this group is symptomatic, they will all be asked to isolate. As recently announced, anyone over the age of 5 is now able to access testing and if testing is negative, they will be able to safely return to school. The fewer the number of social interactions all of us have, the safer it will be to relax restrictions, supported by the test, track and trace programmes to quickly identify and isolate any new infections. The bubble model will enable children to have positive social interaction in a safe and responsible way.

Initial research is suggesting that children are less likely to contract the virus, and where children do contract they virus they tend to experience very mild symptoms. There is some evidence to suggest they are also less likely to transmit the virus to others and this is being explored by researchers as there are very few reported cases of adults contracting the virus from children. There have also been no reported outbreaks in schools around the world which suggests that with appropriate safeguards, schools are low risk environments for all attending. There is a potential for teachers and school staff to pose a risk to one another, which is why it is recommended that as much as possible school staff all adhere to social distancing with one another. We recognise this may not always be possible, and therefore staff can be assigned within the bubble model, so that staff are limited to close-contact interaction with other staff within your bubble and social distancing is maintained with staff in other bubbles.

Whilst youngest pupils are typically those who are least able to socially distance, they are also at the lowest risk to the effects of the Coronavirus and typically have the smallest number of social connections both inside and outside of school settings which reduces the likelihood of them mixing with those outside their household or bubble. The youngest pupils are also at the earliest stage of their education, which research consistently shows is one of the most vital stages for their development as I outlined above. However there are older pupils who are at key stages of their education, and this is why they are also being considered as a priority for a return to school settings, such as Year 6 pupils who are due to make the key transition from primary to secondary schools in September.

By taking this staggered approach, this also allows us to monitor the effect of each of these decisions and if there is any indication that infection rates are increasing, immediate action would be taken.

I would also like to take this opportunity to reiterate that the government will not fine any parents who choose to keep their children home and therefore if anyone, after considering all of the above, feels it is not right for their children to return to schools at this time, then they would not face any negative repercussions for this choice.

Whilst everything will be done to ensure children and staff are as safe as possible as they return to school, we also have to accept that we cannot remove all risk, whether that is from Coronavirus or other dangers. Until we have an effective vaccine there will always be a risk of a further outbreak. However it could be several months or even a year before a vaccine is widely available, if ever. It is unrealistic to expect schools to remain closed until this is achieved. Therefore, it is right that we work together to allow children to return to school whilst doing everything we can to minimise the risk. This has been the approach taken in other areas such as food retail and other essential services and it should be the approach now taken by schools.

We need to work together in the best interests of our children and wider communities. Getting our children back to school as soon as possible is important for a number of reasons and I really hope everyone who needs to will work together to find a way for this to happen.

Thanks again to all those who have been in touch about this important issue, and I trust this is reassuring to you.