Imaginative solutions must be found to reopen schools

As the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, sometimes remarks, medicine is always about balancing risks. This is true for responding to the Covid crisis, where economics and politics can also enter the calculations.

We have seen this throughout the pandemic, over the timing and extent of lockdowns, for example, about whether to concentrate on first vaccinations for more people rather than full double jabs for all, and again in the latest round of arguments about reopening schools.

The moment has come when those working in schools should be given some priority in the vaccination programme, as frontline and economically essential workers. It is true that the infection rates for teachers do not seem to be abnormally high, compared with security officers or taxi drivers for example, but that may not persist if the new more infectious variants spread.

There has always been some uncertainty, and some fear, about how far schools serve as a hub for cross-infection. Even if, as ministers say, schools are “safe” for pupils, not everyone concerned regards them as safe for older adults. Social distancing is certainly difficult to maintain in any such environment.

The most powerful argument for vaccinating school staff, however, is economic and social. As matters stand the authorities cannot give definitive dates for opening schools. The degree of vagueness varies across nations and regions, but there is the possibility that the pressure of Covid infections and caseloads means that schools could be shut well after Easter.

The coronavirus is not some reasonable interlocutor with which we could strike some compromise. If it is mutating and its attacks are more deadly, then those are the facts; and a continued lockdown is inevitable. But the time lost for learning so far, plus the extended absence from proper education stretching into the summer, is tilting the balance of risks.

The damage to education and the economy – because working parents need to stay home – means that schools have to command a greater degree of attention. The long-term effects of blighted life chances on future prospects are depressing to contemplate; economic inequalities, already grievous, are being exacerbated with consequences that will reverberate down the decades.

Schools have always been high on the list of places to try and keep running, higher than pubs and shops, say, but the social strain, not least on housebound parents, is already acute.

Imaginative solutions need to be found. So-called Nightingale classrooms for instance, with ventilation and more space, is one suggestion. Pushing terms back into the summer holidays would be another, to allow the vaccination programme and the natural spread of the virus to secure wider herd immunity. Part-time schooling might be another flexible response.

Getting the vaccines into the arms of school staff, though, would represent an immediate and safer way forward. The balance of risks points to that, and the political pressure may prove irresistible.