Karin Smyth MP on the role of schools and nurseries during the Coronavirus crisis

When the Government first introduced restrictions designed to restrict the spread of Coronavirus in March, most schools and nurseries across Bristol South remained open for vulnerable children and those whose parents are key workers, with all other children remaining home to stop the virus passing from one family to another.  

Since then, the government has revised the guidance, saying schools can open to certain year groups. The announcement in May for a June opening, left little time for schools to prepare for this and left staff, pupils and parents feeling very anxious.

This has not been helped by the fact that government guidance from schools has been updated almost 50 times already – sometimes amended on a Friday or Sunday for the following week without the key changes being flagged. I know how frustrating this has been for school leadership teams and staff and it’s remarkable how they keep going, supporting our children throughout. I applaud them for that.

We all want to see schools and nurseries fully open again, but parents understandably want to know that their children are safe at school. The lack of clear, consistent Government strategy for re-opening schools offers no reassurance of this. 

I’ve previously written about the importance of local testing and tracing to help authorities manage further outbreaks effectively (see previous article) and I’m pleased to see this now starting to take shape following pressure from myself and the Labour Party.

We do need to get society moving again – experts have said that the social and economic harms from the response to the virus now pose as great a risk of illness and premature death as the virus itself.

Schools and nurseries are more than childcare and learning providers, they’re a vital safety net for children – feeding those who need it, providing resources to those who can’t afford it, identifying victims of abuse or neglect and helping those parents who need support with their son or daughter who has Special Educational Needs or Disability (SEND).

I’m in touch with South Bristol Youth, which works with schools and families across the constituency to support young people with learning but engagement rates are low – especially among some of the most at-risk children.

Access to technology is a big issue for some families – especially those with more than 1 or 2 school-aged children. There are some pots of money for this, but we know that lots of children in Bristol South still don’t have the technology they need.

Education has a huge role to play in tackling inequality and enabling social mobility. I know that a lot of schools have put great effort into providing learning guidance and resources – online and which physical learning packs – but we know that some children will continue learning at home with their parents, while others will not.

The gaps that already exist – particularly here in Bristol South (see previous article) – will likely widen and we will be living with the impact of this long after we are free of the virus itself.