Today marks the partial reopening of the UK’s primary (elementary) schools. Although classroom teaching has been available for the children of keyworkers throughout the pandemic, the majority of the nation’s pupils have been at home since mid-March. From now, three year groups are officially allowed back: Reception (aged 4-5), Year 1 (aged 5-6) and Year 6 (aged 10-11).
The reactions to the move have been mixed. While some welcome the news, others are more cautious. Some schools have refused to reopen for fear that the risk of transmission of Covid-19 is still too high and it has been left to parents to decide whether or not they are happy to send their children back to the classroom. This morning, the BBC reported that half of parents may opt not to do so.
Watching from the sidelines, I feel rather grateful not to have to make such a choice. Having spent the past eleven weeks splitting the care of our toddler with my husband so that each of us gets two and a half days a week to work instead of the usual four, I can well understand the appeal of having childcare again. I also know how important it is for children to have social interaction: watching my daughter become increasingly immersed in games with imaginary ‘friends’ as the weeks have gone by has been sad. Now that outdoor meetings between small groups are allowed in England, we are starting to plan park trips and garden visits with other children. As looked set to be the case at the start of lockdown, this period of isolation will have affected the development of millions of youngsters.
Still, reports of the R-rate remaining close to one and the stories of young children suffering a toxic shock-like syndrome after exposure to Covid-19 are worrying. Regardless of the strategies a school puts in place, it is unrealistic to expect small children to keep their distance from one another. And it is unrealistic to expect those who care for and teach them not to get within 2m of their charges.
And so, as I suspect will increasingly be the case for all of us over the months to come, parents of school-age children are faced with the dilemma of weighing up risk versus benefit. They must determine for themselves whether the harm that exposure to coronavirus may do tips the scales against the good of social interaction and classroom education.
What individual families opt to do will depend on many factors – their relationship with risk, the situation in their local area, their faith in the government and in the ability of schools to minimise opportunities for transmission, the value they place on education, and the pressures on their time and resources, to name but a few. It is almost inevitable that in the coming months we will hear about those who – whatever they decide – end up regretting the choice they make today.
For now, though, the school gates stand open and many teachers are back at their desks, beginning a new half term.