First published in the Daily Express, 12th January 2021:
School closures are potentially a disaster for our children. We know that, despite the individual efforts of wonderful teachers and support staff, many pupils suffer a loss of learning, growing mental health issues, as well as wellbeing and safeguarding hazards at home. The Royal Society of Paediatrics reported that eating disorders amongst young people had gone up by 400%, in part due to schools being shut and social isolation. One DfE official warned that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers could widen by as much as 75% as a result of COVID-19.
Nothing could be more important than getting our schools open. Yet, even before the lockdown, in December, nearly 800,000 pupils were absent from school for Covid-related reasons, including outbreaks in schools, teachers/support staff contracting the virus and self-isolation.
If teachers and support staff are made a priority in the second phase of vaccinations, we can reduce the risk of transmission and ensure that fewer children are sent home when schools reopen. Teachers and support staff will feel safe whilst keeping pupils learning in the classroom, where they belong.
Similarly, the police have displayed incredible courage on the frontline. Without complaint, and whatever the situation with COVID-19, they have worked day and night, putting the safety of others first. Maintaining law and order is essential and, given their sacrifices, it seems right that the police should be considered a priority for vaccinations.
Of course, plenty of other workers have become true “Corona-heroes”. I think of the supermarket employees, postmen and women, refuse operatives, delivery drivers, factory workers - many on low incomes - who have put in the hours to make sure that we are fed and have supplies delivered to our homes.
In making these decisions, it is very hard to say that one group of workers deserves priority over another, especially where they have made a real difference to our day-to-day lives. However, if we, as a society, regard the most important thing we can do is keep our children educated, then teachers and support staff must be high up on the list for vaccinations. If we don’t get our schools open soon, after the coronavirus, we risk an epidemic of educational poverty and a crisis in mental health for months and years to come.