Keeping schools open from September should be a Government priority as it manages the COVID-19 pandemic, while closures could have severe social and economic effects that endure for decades, according to a new report.

Children from low-income households in particular are more likely to lack the resources – space, equipment, home support – to engage fully with remote schooling

Anna Vignoles

The report, Balancing the risks of pupils returning to school, highlights the potential impact on the 13 year-groups of students affected by lockdown. It estimates that, without action, from the mid-2030s and for the 50 years thereafter, around a quarter of the entire workforce will have lower skills.

This could reduce their earning potential by 3% a year and consequently lower the overall economic growth rate. The long-term economic consequences aside, the immediate negative impact on children’s mental and physical health, as well as their safety, will be considerable.

The report has been produced by the Royal Society’s multi-disciplinary Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics (DELVE) group. The lead authors are Professor Anna Vignoles, University of Cambridge, and Professor Simon Burgess, University of Bristol.

Their assessment looks at the difficulties of balancing the significant costs to pupils and parents of school closures against the need to minimise the risks of COVID-19 infection to children, teachers and the wider community.

It concludes that the risk of infection from restarting schools is not high, relative to many other activities, although the authors recognise that the evidence on this still limited. The experience of most other countries which have already taken this step supports this view, the authors say, and by contrast the evidence for the negative impact of closing schools is considerable and robust.

The report also observes that when infection rates rise in some locations, schools may need to close, but such decisions should be determined by objective criteria and made on a school-by-school, or local area basis.

The report calls on the Government to:

  • Suppress the virus in the wider community, as a priority, to reduce the risk of transmission in schools once at full capacity, and to minimise future disruption to learning.
  • Have objective, transparent, criteria for local decision-making about closing and reopening schools, with clear leadership for that decision-making process.
  • Provide realistic guidance and substantial extra resources to ensure that schools can minimise chains of transmission (parental guidance on when to keep their child at home applying the precautionary principle; rigorous hygiene; physical distancing and reduced mixing; extra teachers; PPE – including face coverings for teachers, older children and those with underlying health issues; management of staff rooms; regular testing; and prioritisation for vaccines for teachers).
  • Implement effective surveillance, with a test-trace-isolate system that enables a rapid response to outbreaks, and which allows schools to re-open quickly if they have to close.
  • Establish effective, clear and unified communication with school leaders, teachers and parents to manage opening and closing of schools in response to local conditions.

The report also explores the impact on inequality. Anna Vignoles, Professor of Education at the Faculty of Education and a Fellow of Jesus College, University of Cambridge, said: “Shutting down schools has impacted all children but the worst effects will be felt by those from lower socio-economic groups and with other vulnerabilities, such as a pre-existing mental health condition. Children from low-income households in particular are more likely to lack the resources – space, equipment, home support – to engage fully with remote schooling. Those with pre-existing conditions are more likely to experience a worsening of their mental health. This has to be taken into account in how we come out of this pandemic.”

Simon Burgess, Professor of Economics, University of Bristol, said: “We know how damaging it is for children to miss out on school. The amount of school already missed due to the pandemic could impact on their earning potential by around 3% a year throughout their lives and impact on productivity in the UK for decades. While it is still early days, there has been little evidence of surges in infection rates in countries that have opened up schools, including countries where they have fully reopened. While we have to do all that we can to reduce the risk of transmission, we need to get our children back to school.”

One of the challenges highlighted in the report is the lack of data. It calls for a system, including surveillance studies, to be put in place to increase understanding of the risks and provide decision-makers with the local and timely data they need to monitor neighbourhood and school infection rates and to respond accordingly. There is also a call for a programme of anonymous assessment of education achievement and pupil mental health across all age ranges in a sample of schools in mid-September, to gauge the extent and nature of the learning loss and the impact on pupil wellbeing.

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.