Oliver Johnson

Is it really necessary for schools to be closed?

Is it really necessary for schools to be closed?
(Photo: Getty)
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With Primark open, parents can once again buy cut-price school uniforms for their children. Whether those children will get to wear them before they grow out of them is an open question. The government has abandoned plans to get all primary school children back into the classroom before the end of term, and Matt Hancock has questioned whether secondary school children will even be back in September.

But was it necessary to close schools at all? The Imperial College Report 9 of 16 March is credited with changing the government’s coronavirus policy and sending the country into lockdown. Yet the report did not really press for closing schools. Its data suggested that taking this action would only reduce total deaths by between 2 and 4 per cent. A more pressing reason for closing schools, it concluded, was to reduce the peak load on the NHS. However, two months since deaths peaked, with hospital admissions continuing to trend down and the Nightingale hospitals mothballed, it seems legitimate to ask if ‘protecting the NHS’ is now the only priority to consider.

All along, it has been evident that there is a huge disparity in the effect of Covid-19 on the young and the very old, with the former hardly touched by the virus. Of the 27,981 Covid deaths currently recorded in English hospitals, 25,574 were in the over-60 age group. There have been just 18 deaths among under-19s – many of whom had underlying health conditions. Every death is tragic, of course, but the risk for the young does not seem to justify the drastic step of closing schools.

Part of the problem is that people are not good at assessing and understanding risk. The Cambridge Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit (MRC-BSU) currently estimates that the chance of an infected 5 to 14-year-old dying from the disease is 0.001 per cent, or 1 in 100,000. Recent UK road traffic data suggests that we average one fatality per 200 million miles of driving. In other words, for this age group catching Covid-19 is about as dangerous as 2,000 miles on the road. But we still put kids in cars – because we have learned to balance the risk against the benefits.

The continued school closures have undermined the principle of universal education, and significant attainment gaps will have grown between the haves and have nots. While teachers have worked hard to provide online resources and activities, those will have less impact in households with limited access to electronic devices, and where parents themselves have a lower level of education and cannot afford a tutor to fill in the gaps. Indeed, as young people meet up at shopping centres and elsewhere, they are still risking infection without any of the benefits of attending school.

In any case, protecting children from coronavirus risk does not remove that risk altogether, but rather passes it to more vulnerable members of the population. Roughly a quarter of the UK is made up of under-19s. If they all caught Covid-19 we would be on the way to achieving herd immunity. Until we have a vaccine, every infection we avoid in that age group is likely to occur instead in more vulnerable groups – such as the over-75s, whose chances of dying if infected by coronavirus are one in four.

Why is a Government that has prided itself on ‘following the science’ not pushing harder to open schools, as a proper analysis of the evidence would recommend? No wonder parents are baffled why we are reopening theme parks, with beer gardens apparently due to reopen next, while many children remain unable to go to school. It is time for the government to govern, and get the classrooms fully open again.

Oliver Johnson, School of Mathematics, University of Bristol, @BristOliver