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The real danger in keeping children out of school is the impact on their development

Experience of the 22 European countries that reopened classrooms is mixed

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen meets students at Stolpedal school as the country went into phase two of its reopening, amid the coronavirus disease outbreak, Aalborg, Denmark, May 18. Ritzau Scanpix / Henning Bagger / Reuters
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen meets students at Stolpedal school as the country went into phase two of its reopening, amid the coronavirus disease outbreak, Aalborg, Denmark, May 18. Ritzau Scanpix / Henning Bagger / Reuters

Teachers in the UK are fuelling divisions over how to restart the cruelly interrupted school year.

One of the greatest consequences of the coronavirus shutdown is set to be the decades-long effects on those who are still learning.

Lost time is harmful at every age, but particularly for the youngest and those in crucial exam years hoping for a gateway to the future.

Throughout the pandemic, the magical factor of good leadership has been obvious. Some countries bore a lesser impact of the pandemic than peers because of good decisions.

The teaching profession is now being asked how it can lead for those it has been entrusted to build and guide.

Unfortunately, many in the profession are shying away from the call and appear preoccupied with political debating points and picking fights.

One country that has successfully restarted schooling is Denmark. The teaching profession there has shown initiative in how to create space for socially distant learning.

Its children have been successfully back in school since April 15. The key to a quick restart from the lockdown was that teachers played a leading role in reinventing schooling.

Some of the classes take place outdoors. There was a well-structured plan for distancing as pupils queued to get into the school.

Small classes mean children can keep their distance. Administrators were quick to strike deals with cultural centres, which are still mothballed, to open up performing spaces and auditoriums for additional classroom space.

Boots outside a classroom as staff make preparations at Watlington Primary School to reopen to children on June 1, Watlington, UK, May 21. Eddie Keogh / Reuters
Boots outside a classroom as staff make preparations at Watlington Primary School to reopen to children on June 1, Watlington, UK, May 21. Eddie Keogh / Reuters

Teacher have embraced the new venues. Schoolchildren were even able to go to school in Denmark’s national soccer stadium.

For a country that was fearful of the future, the images of five-year-olds singing the national anthem in the lounges overlooking the pitch were a real boost to national morale.

The poorest children are suffering the most, cut off from school meals, organised exercise, computers and knowledge

Museum space was imaginatively co-opted as a place of learning.

A yacht club threw open its space and sailing capabilities to local children, who have since begun learning to sail.

All this is possible while continuing to observe special measures, such as regular breaks for hand-washing.

Other neighbouring countries have also returned successfully.

Germany has been able to go ahead with the Arbitur, the country’s top school exam.

It has separated school rooms with white lines and made face masks compulsory in communal areas.

The experience of the 22 European countries that reopened classrooms since the pandemic was declared is, however, mixed.

Not every country has been able to get all institutions up and running. Others have opened schools only to face partial shutdowns.

Then there is the resistance to a restart before the summer break in places where the lockdown was continuing.

Britain cancelled its A-Level exams as it went into lockdown in mid-March. The decision had the merits of being clear cut.

It appears to have convinced teachers they would not be back in schoolrooms until the next teaching year.

Now rows rage in the UK about protective equipment and resources for changing the layouts of the schools.

Teacher Rhiannon Sharman makes preparations for Watlington Primary School to reopen to children on June 1. Eddie Keogh / Reuters
Teacher Rhiannon Sharman makes preparations for Watlington Primary School to reopen to children on June 1. Eddie Keogh / Reuters

A June 1 deadline for the resumption has been put in doubt, even though many teachers and experts say there are compelling reasons to resume.

The medical evidence is not yet conclusive on how infectious a child with Covid-19 is, but there is strong evidence that the clinical effect on the young is negligible.

The real danger in keeping children out of school is the impact on their development.

Parents are not trained teachers. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that children at the best (and most expensive) fee-paying schools are able to access a seamless level of education.

Outside the top tier of schools, the picture is grim.

Teachers who post one blog of five or six tasks a day are barely carrying out their mission to be educators.

A single call by the teacher in a week, or a month, to parents in lockdown is tokenistic at best.

One survey in Britain estimated that 10 per cent of pupils had no home coursework from their schools.

That inevitably means the poorest children are suffering the most.

Life chances have already been altered by changes in exam timetabling. Covid-19 has cut off the disadvantaged from access to school meals, organised exercise, computers and knowledge.

It is more than an offence against the natural justice of doing well or badly according to circumstance.

The wider social need for children to pass through uniform education is a universal good.

Nearly every country can sustain this regardless of conflict, poverty or ideology. Like the postal system it is remarkably common and familiar.

Instead teachers are feeding on a climate of fear and rumour mongering. The pendulum has swung as the lockdown has continued while infection rates peaked.

Avoiding longer term harms now rests on the shoulders of teachers.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National

Updated: May 25, 2020 01:26 AM

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