Column: my thoughts on reopening schools

I have been contacted by dozens of concerned parents, carers, teachers and school staff in the last week, all worried following the Government’s announcement on the 24th of May that schools could re-open on June 1st. 

I would like to first thank the teachers who have been working tirelessly to provide online support to their pupils as well as in-person lessons to the children of key workers during the COVID-19 outbreak. School staff have been working around the clock to help their students during this difficult time. Last week I wrote to headteachers to find out their views. I heard so many accounts of staff working longer hours and missing holidays to ensure pupils are taken care of and that their educational attainment doesn’t suffer as a consequence of this crisis 

I firmly believe that the decision to widen the opening of schools is one that must be made in collaboration with school staff, teachers’ unions, parents and carers. My office has been in close contact with local schools during this time, helping them with any issues they have faced as a result of these new and challenging circumstances. I have also spoken to representatives of the National Education Union who have outlined what social distancing measures and safety conditions must be in place for schools to be able to re-open, these include testing, social distancing and fewer cases of COVID-19 in our community.  

From the outset of the outbreak I have been deeply worried about the impact of school closures on the wellbeing and educational attainment of disadvantaged children. As a former teacher I know the importance of in-person support and regular check-ins. What has become very clear over the course of this outbreak is the impact of nearly a decade of underfunding on our school’s capacity to deliver online teaching and support to pupils. A recent report found that private school pupils are twice as likely to receive online lessons than those at state schools. State schools simply do not have the funds to create online learning platforms and provide their pupils with an electronic device to access them. I recently had a meeting with the Minister for Children and Families to advocate for these children and push for more resources for schools so that they can better support them. 

When schools re-open their gates it will not be a return to how things were before. For schools to re-admit pupils social distancing measures and safety conditions must be met. We also need to make sure that disadvantaged and vulnerable children do not miss out as we adjust to new ways of working and educating. These have been very difficult times for our community and I am proud of how we have risen to this unprecedented challenge. It is important that that the concerns of worried parents, carers, teachers unions and school staff are taken into account. We all want schools to return as soon as possible but only when it is safe to do so.