The debate about the reopening of schools has become polarised. The wellbeing of our children and young people, their teachers and their families is dependent on us finding common ground.
We all agree that children and young people have a right to a school-based education. It is equally right that teachers and parents feel reassured and have confidence in official guidance. It is not a contest between these two priorities, we must get children back to school and we must create conditions that give teachers and parents confidence and reassurance.
The evidence is very clear that children, especially young children, are protected from the worst effects of COVID-related illness. The evidence is much less clear about the extent to which children may transmit COVID-19 back into households and communities. We won’t have a clear answer to this question for some time, and it is impossible to choose a date that does not involve a serious conversation about balancing priorities and mitigating risks.
It is important to separate the questions of the risk of reopening school to children themselves, and the risk to the broader population.
There is little doubt that the balance of risks for children and young people is that a return to school is in their best interests. Children and young people are the part of the population least affected by COVID-19 and their risks of contracting serious illness from COVID-19 are very low. Keeping children away from school brings significant risks to their health and wellbeing.
Getting back to school is particularly important for those children and young people we class as vulnerable. Whilst they are away from school, there are limited opportunities to support their health and wellbeing. This is exacerbating health, social and economic inequalities. We know that in England, only 14% of vulnerable children and young people are currently attending school, despite guidance that they should.
Whether reopening schools presents a risk to adults and the broader population R number is much more uncertain, although there are very encouraging signs from other European countries that have begun to open schools. In the face of this uncertainty we must work carefully to mitigate these risks.
Clearly protective equipment and detailed prescriptions on how to make classrooms work are essential. But mitigation does not begin and end at the school gate. A critical factor, still in development and therefore uncertain, is a robust and responsive contact tracing system. It is this system that will protect communities and enable health care workers and public health officials to identify and contain local outbreaks. It is very difficult to provide the necessary reassurance about the return of schools in the absence of such a system. Monitoring of schools and infection control is also vital.
We regret the division and polarisation on this issue – whilst the strength of feeling is understandable, it should not be a fight. The concerns and voices of all concerned, including those of children and young people, should be heard respectfully. The discussion of risk cannot only be about the risks of COVID-19 but must include the risks of keeping schools closed. The road ahead is a long one with many difficult choices and questions ahead. It is vital that we work together to build trust and find consensus.
This statement is endorsed by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.