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‘Social Distancing Will Damage Our Children’

Liz Cole, founder of UsForThem, on the devastating impact of Covid measures on children.

spiked: Are schools in poor areas with fewer resources going to find it harder to operate in this context?

Cole: Yes. Again, this is the variability of all of this: variable ways that the measures are being applied, variable resources that schools have available to do this. Obviously, private schools are going to be much better placed to implement these measures with more limited disruption. It is just deepening all of the inequalities that we know about. We know now that parents are beginning to make contingency plans for the children where they have the resources and the wherewithal to do so. But not every parent is going to be in that position. We are going backwards.

There are obviously also knock-on effects on gender equality and a whole host of other things, too. And the resources that the school has available will have a huge effect. If they had larger classes to begin with, then they are not going to be able to create these bubbles. We have actually heard about people who have gone into school, called back as part of the phased return, who went in for one day and then had to be sent away again because the schools could not support those people being in school. They had to keep places open for the children of key workers.

spiked: What has the experience of reopening schools been in other countries?

Cole: Many countries have reopened schools, with and without social distancing. First of all, there have not been spikes in new cases where schools have reopened. Norway, for example, opened schools in May with social distancing between children, but they have now rolled back those measures. In Sweden, schools have been open throughout the crisis and they have not had social distancing in place between children in schools. Cases of coronavirus have continued to fall there. They have just focused on the sensible, respectful hygiene measures. The Netherlands has also had schools open without social distancing between children. There is a false impression that social distancing is a given between children and that that is the only way for schools to be open. We know there are countries where they have either not done it at any point or did initially but have now chosen to end the measures and focus on hygiene.

There is another point which we are hearing about, which is the presence of infection clusters in schools. There is always a lot of attention where cases do emerge in schools. But there is a really good researcher called Alasdair Munro, who has written a number of papers about this. He posted a very sensible thread on Twitter, pointing out that these clusters are rare enough to be newsworthy. There are tens of thousands of schools open in countries where there is still active Covid-19, and recognising that is more informative than focusing on the clusters that are being splashed all across the papers.

What I find very shocking about all of this is the lack of discourse. What we have here is a situation where we are implementing damaging measures, and yet nobody in a position that would traditionally advocate for children has been asking whether they are proportionate. That is why we started the campaign, because, far from wanting to step into this situation, we just felt there is such a gap in public discourse that we had to do something.

With that in mind, we have written to the education secretary and we have an open letter to him on our website. We have also written to the Children’s Commissioner, and we have written to a host of children’s charities as well. We want to understand why these questions are not being asked.

Liz Cole was speaking to Paddy Hannam. Find out more about UsForThem here.


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