This week we have started the first step toward ending the national lockdown with the reopening of schools. The government had hoped to avoid having to close schools in January but, in the end, the rapid growth in infections right across the country meant that there was no other option. The new strain of the virus has been more virulent and placed intolerable pressure on our NHS.
However, as the Prime Minister set out two weeks ago, the amazing success of our vaccine rollout and a substantial fall in cases has allowed us to begin the process of returning the country back to normal. As I write this, we have now vaccinated nearly 23 million people and over 2 out of 5 of all adults have had their first dose. The roll-out of the vaccine is a key route for us out of lockdown and the pandemic. The first priority is to get our young people back to school and help get their education back on track.
Locally, our schools did an amazing job making sure that they could offer a safe environment when the children were in schools. Timetables were adjusted to try to reduce the disruption of students moving between classes and ending up in crowded corridors, with some putting more time between lessons so that teachers could move from one class to another more easily to reduce the movements of students. Year groups were sometimes separated into different parts of the school and bubbles were created in individual forms. I have no doubt that this huge effort will continue as we get children back to school this week.
It is inevitable that with the return of schools that there will some rise in transmission, however, the government has made every effort to offer schools support in the form of tests and PPE to prevent infection and monitor the situation. Children will be encouraged to wear masks in the classroom where social distancing is more difficult and home testing will be available in the next few weeks.
The decision to close schools in January did not just have the obvious effects around disruption to exams and teaching. It is much more profound than that. Children in both primary schools and secondary have been separated from friends. Children’s birthday parties can’t happen as they normally would and should. School sports events are not happening. We humans are social creatures. Friendships and the company of others are important. Forming those bonds and friendships is a really important part of growing up, whether it is in the formative early years as children start their first years as infants at primary school, or whether it is in those tricky teenage years as young people wrestle with all the insecurities and concerns that accompany that stage of life.
As schools return, we are going to have to pay special attention to help all those children and young people who have been affected by the lockdown. There will be some who have lost confidence, drifted away from friends or have insecurities exacerbated. They are all going to need support to overcome the trauma of this episode and resume their education.