Closing schools again would be wrong – and have a devastating effect on the least advantaged in society

Of all the areas of life that have been affected by the Coronavirus Pandemic, education must be one of the worst. Back in March, schools were forced to close, with children potentially losing entire years’ worth of education. Exams were cancelled without question, many students were awarded highly questionable grades dictated by an online algorithm, and governments were forced to perform constant U-turns.

Universities have certainly not been spared. While it is arguably easier for universities to adapt technologically to the new way of life, there has been very little consideration from the government for the welfare of students or staff. For the freshers who have been forced to isolate in their rooms and stare at a computer screen for hours on end, the whole thing is profoundly demoralising.

As with any and all aspects of the lockdown, the whole issue of education has been politicised to the extent that children’s wellbeing has almost ceased to be a priority. The Scottish government, in their never-ending quest to be better than England at eliminating coronavirus, have already cancelled next year’s National 5 exams. Groups such as the National Education Union have consistently pushed for school closures, neglecting the fact that coronavirus poses less danger to children aged 5 to 17 than any other age group; with the NCHS estimating a 0.0031% chance of hospitalisation.

It is therefore welcome that during the coming lockdown, the government have announced that educational institutions will remain open. While the damage to certain areas of education may be irrevocably done – for example, the appalling nationwide fiasco over A-Level exam results – the government now has an opportunity to learn from its mistakes and allow children to learn properly once again.

Regrettably, we are still a long way off normal and probably will be for some years. Nowhere is this more evident than at university, where students and tutors alike are feeling the effects of interacting through the internet; something we should be grateful for especially in times like these, but which simply cannot replicate genuine social interaction on a permanent basis. University may be “open” in theory, but since returning to full-time study in September, the majority of students have not had a single in-person lecture or seminar. You don’t need to spend much time on an online tutorial to see that the lack of proper interaction between students and tutors contributes to a considerable dip in the quality of learning.

These feelings, combined with severe cabin fever, arguably reached their peak on Thursday evening when students at the University of Manchester gathered to vent their anger at the fact that large metal gates had been erected around the Fallowfield campus. The scenes captured on social media and by the Manchester news highlighted the growing frustration that students are feeling everywhere.

However, as university students we are arguably best equipped to cope with the changing circumstances. Throughout the pandemic it has been low-income and disadvantaged people who have suffered the most; not least working-class schoolchildren. According to a UCL study carried out in June during the first lockdown, it was reported that while 31% of private schools had been providing four or more online lessons or meetings every day, 71% of state school children had actually received between zero and one.

Additionally, the same report found that while 97% of private school children had access to a computer at home, one in five of those on free school meals had none at all. It is disparities such as these that highlight how much more another lockdown will affect low-income children, contributing more to a growing attainment gap. If the government truly wish to commit to their “levelling up” agenda on which they were elected, they will not seek to close schools.

In general, schools have done well to keep their pupils safe since reopening. With strict social distancing measures in place, including the introduction of class or year group support bubbles, there should be no reason to suggest that they should have their education further curtailed. Without education, we cannot hope to have a properly functioning society.

Alex Howe

Image source: Tiger Times