OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on schools closures during the Coronavirus crisis

(Newspaper column as seen in the South Bristol Voice in July 2020)

Since schools first closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic back in March, I’ve been contacted by parents, teachers, headteachers and governors about the situation.

The initial Government announcement that schools would re-open to certain year groups from ‘June 1 at the earliest’ offered no clear guidance for schools or reassurances for parents that it would be safe to do so. In lieu of a clear strategy, it left it up to individual school headteachers and governors to decipher ever-changing guidance to try and ensure their schools could safely re-open.

The Labour Party repeatedly called on the Government to set up a taskforce of parents, school leaders and education unions, and health experts to agree upon a series of practical safety measures that must be met before any date for reopening was confirmed. But, like much of the Government’s Coronavirus response, it ignored input from parents and teachers – showing a complete lack of respect for those affected by these decisions.

We needed a clear, informed strategy built on consensus but we got some vague, ill thought-out plan which shows little understanding of how schools actually operate.

One local primary school governor speaking to me ahead of the June opening, asked for “a well prepared plan which takes account of the health and safety of pupils, our staff, and all those who work in, or visit, schools.” They added: “The Government repeatedly says it “is led by the science”. In this instance it must be led by the people who know how schools operate, how children behave and what their needs are.”

We all want children to return to school as soon as it is safe to do so. There are so many reasons for this – from stopping children falling behind in their education, to allowing parents to return to work and to identify safeguarding issues and ensure full support is available to those families who need it.

Schools are there for education but are also fundamental to wider society – enabling parents to work and supporting local families. They are essential in tackling child poverty and act as a safety net for many children, ensuring they have access to food and emotional support – as well as learning opportunities.

We know that missing six months of school will hit some children harder than others and we have to look at how we will support those families. We need a package of academic and pastoral support from the Government. But it must also understand that addressing the academic shortfall alone will not be enough without tackling the root causes of child poverty and inequality.