The economic impact of keeping schools closed:
The planned re-opening of schools across England next month has been described as a ‘moral duty’ by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but the issue remains contentious. Teachers’ Unions are already suggesting many schools will not reopen on the proposed date, while Johnson has signalled that other amenities – such as pubs – may be closed to facilitate a safer environment for children to return. Naturally, the wellbeing of children must be one of the nation’s top priorities, but the economic backdrop of the debate is fuelling its urgency. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has warned that the cost of school closures to date has been more expensive than the 2008 financial crash. Breaking down the exact cost of school closures is a difficult task, but it has been reported by the Financial Times that parental forced absenteeism from work will shrink GDP by 1% every 12 weeks.
The cost of closures so far:
To put this into perspective, the estimated bill so far has exceeded £4 billion, with the average family paying an extra £36 a week in childcare while foregoing an average of £584 in monthly household income. One in ten parents have had to reduce their hours and take a pay cut, while 11% were furloughed for childcare related reasons. Working parents are forfeiting £250 million pounds a week in potential earnings, while 6% have stopped working completely. Meanwhile the benefit of keeping schools closed in terms of slowing the spread of COVID-19 has been called into question. Both the Lancet and the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health have reported that the evidence to support continued school closures is weak, while the economic impact as well as harm to children’s learning and wellbeing is severe.
What impact is this having on children?
It is expected that the lack of access to schools will be a severe detriment to the mental health of children, both because they do not have the usual channels to seek support, and because of the unprecedented disruption and uncertainty regarding exams and grading. The Guardian reports that the government will have to pick up the bill for child psychologists and other support professionals, and the problem will only become more acute as time goes on. Beyond the added mental pressures, there are concerns that such a prolonged period of absence from school will have long term impact on a whole generation. While some online teaching has been put in place, children from independent schools are twice as likely to have attended online lessons daily as those from state schools.
Put simply, more affluent parents will have more resources to hire private tutors, better access to infrastructure, and have more time to educate their children in lieu of schools, while poorer families may not have this luxury. This will entrench economic inequality at a time when the young will already pick up the bill for the Pandemic. This leaves school goers unequal and unprepared as they enter a work force facing spiralling unemployment and the largest recession since records began.
What are the safety concerns?
While there is broad cross-party support for reopening the schools in September, much disagreement remains regarding the form this will take and the safety precautions that will be in place. The ASCL Union has called for more detail and greater clarity in the return plans, citing confusion over whether pupils will be allowed to wear masks in lessons if they feel the need to. Other measures such as regular testing have been proposed, as well as potentially staggering the opening and closing of schools.
Questions also remain about pupils who have been shielding, as it is vital to protect the most vulnerable and at risk from the disease. The vast majority of pupils are deemed to be at a low level of risk, with just six people aged 15 and under having died from the disease across the UK. The council of top scientists advising the government, SAGE, have also stated that the risks are low, and it is strongly in the interest of children to reopen schools. Cases of children spreading the disease to adults remain rare, and just 2% of COVID cases involve children.
Will the children be back in September?
While the government can set the target, it is up to parents and teachers to actually make this a reality. Parent created group Sept for Schools isn’t so sure pupils will be returning back as planned and wants teachers to provide home schooling if classes are cancelled due to a second wave or local outbreak. While many remain unconvinced, for the sake of the economy and children’s future, sooner may be better than later.