In France, lessons will resume as normal next week. In Iceland, schools have remained open. In Germany pupils are sitting their exams.
Here, we have prioritised reopening theme parks and non-essential shops. Perhaps children can scrub up on addition by counting the number of people queueing in front of Primark, or on biology by patrolling London Zoo.
But it’s more likely that, as 1,500 paediatricians warned earlier this week, failure to let children back into the classroom will risk “scarring the life chances” of a generation. Why, therefore, the screeching U-turn on schools opening fully before the summer holidays? And today, the implicit admission from our School Standards Minister that September could also be pie in the sky?
With every passing day, the attainment chasm is growing. Many teachers have provided online learning with commendable zeal – but this is less effective in households with no electronic devices. Four million children now have no regular contact with their teachers. 7% of children have no internet connection. 700,000 aren’t doing any homework.
While some state schools are in a trade union-led fight to stay shut, a number of private schools are preparing to disregard government guidance and open at the start of the new academic year “come what may”. Many aim to have their own track and trace systems in place by September. Private sector ingenuity aside, the gap between the haves and have nots will widen further.
And as we hurtle towards month four of lockdown, the novelty of home schooling has long subsided. Pupils have spent weeks isolated from teachers, deprived of social activities and confined to their homes. Our children’s wellbeing is essential – in fact, it is grounds enough to insist schools reopen.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
But there is a growing awareness of the damage that prolonged closures are doing to the economy. Doing some “back of the envelope numbers,” Julian Jessop, Economics Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, suggests it could cost £22bn for every three months that schools remain shut.
Human capital is enhanced by education. Studies have shown that each year in education could raise incomes by between 5 and 10 per cent. Scrap a term of school, and it is conceivable that a generation will earn 2-3 per cent less over the course of their working lives.
And lost output in the education sector – which accounts for between 5 and 6% of the UK economy (this figure includes nurseries and universities as well as schools) – comes at a significant cost. If we assume that 2% of national output is lost for three months, that is a total hit of about £11bn.
Further, eight million households have school-age children. The productivity of working parents who are stuck at home will be dented to the point where, Jessop writes, it could double the short-term costs.
But we are not just faced with the binary choice of open vs shut. If we insist on staying 2 metres apart – which would surely require militant monitoring among younger year groups – we must start to think laterally. Get children in the classroom at weekends. Keep schools open throughout the summer. Accept that children may not be in school 8am-3pm Monday-Friday but acknowledge that intermittent face-to-face far surpasses the status quo.
It would be far better, of course, to abandon social distancing in schools. There is mounting evidence that children are not vectors of the disease and Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at Cambridge University, has estimated that the risk to children under 15 of catching and then dying from coronavirus is one in 5.3m. Across the globe, hundreds of thousands of pupils experiencing education as in the pre-Covid era – no bubbles, no social distancing – just good old fashioned learning.
We would need to mitigate against inevitable flare ups – by adopting a healthy obsession with hand-washing, for instance – and shut schools where cases are identified. But an advantage to the glacial speed with which we’ve reopened schools is that we can learn best practice from overseas.
Over the course of three days in September 1939, 1.5m children were evacuated out of the cities and into the countryside. We knocked up a “Nightingale hospital” in a few weeks. We now need the same level of commitment towards salvaging the life chances of a generation of children.
After all, this is one area where the state can take control. Reopen schools with gusto and you signal to parents across the nation that it is safe for their children to return. Even with half of primary schools open, only 7% of children were in school on 4 June. If we continue to delay, to equivocate, then we may come to find that it is harder to give people’s civil liberties back than it was to take them away.
Annabel Denham is Director of Communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs.