As New York closes its schools, in this challenging opinion, Nyla Nox argues that a gap year for all UK schools is needed right now to protect children and adults from the coronavirus pandemic.

First published in November 2020.

We need a gap year for schools – now!

How many of us will die from Covid-19 because the schools are open?

Coronavirus is spreading through schools and universities. Working conditions for teachers are hazardous. They spend many hours in a small room with inadequate distancing, without PPE. They breathe in the virus every day.

Children, of course, both infect and get infected, too. Because many of them don’t show symptoms, they can then carry the virus out of the infection-rich environment of the school and shed it everywhere they go. The virus travels with them to their homes where they spend even more time in even smaller rooms with adults – often vulnerable adults. The adults (and other children) they infect at home then carry it to workplaces, necessary appointments, shops, public transport, and, of course, back to school. The same school or other schools – where it then spreads to new carriers.

This is how the virus spreads – everywhere. There is no scientific reason why it would magically not spread because the sign on the building says ‘School’.

I was always puzzled by the belief that children didn’t get infected and didn’t infect others. Many studies have now shown that that is indeed not true. Children get infected with Covid-19 and shed it into the air around them.

According to BESA, the trade association for the UK’s world-leading education suppliers, there are about 10,320,811 students (pupils) in schools in the UK. And 506,400 full-time teachers (2019 figures). Over ten million people in a population of 66 million.

Open schools pretty much guarantee an uncontrolled transmission of infections. We know this from the flu season which coincides with the start of the school year, and other infections like head lice. We also know it from studies like this Harvard study.

So why, when restaurants and public spaces are closed, when people are encouraged to work from home, are schools still open?

Why, if we are told that restrictions are necessary to save lives, do we not close the schools? It makes no sense.

Keeping schools open means that more people will die from Covid-19. That is a fact. So why are they open?

The arguments for keeping schools open seem very flimsy to me.

“Education is important.”

Yes, of course. Absolutely. (And education in the UK leaves much to be improved on.) But education is a concept that covers the entire life span. It certainly covers the entire span of a student’s school attendance. Education doesn’t only happen this year.

Even under normal circumstances, many students miss out on parts of the school curriculum. Some because of illness, some for other reasons. Some of them ‘catch up’, others repeat the school year. It doesn’t mean they receive no education. The arrangement of school education into ‘years’ (by date of birth) and portioning up the information that is taught into a particular sequence is a plan devised by teachers and ministries of education. These plans originate from the nineteenth century (some have even older roots) and they frequently change. Grade school is not a natural phenomenon. It is entirely artificial and has no direct connection to the development of the human brain. It’s a cultural choice.

“Students will fall behind.”

Behind what? Behind a curriculum that is devised by humans that can be changed at any time?

Behind whom? Other students who don’t live in the year 2020? Time travellers?

Social distancing at school... What social distancing? | Flickr – Number 10

“Students won’t meet milestones.”

Again, school curricula are not natural phenomena. If you don’t learn French, calculus or ‘all about Henry VIII and his 6 wives’ this year, you can learn it next year.

Of course, the right to universal school education is fundamental and, indeed, a pillar of democracy. But a gap year wouldn’t change that. It would just be a responsible measure to save lives.

“Schools are needed for students who live in poverty and/or are vulnerable to abuse.”

First of all, if that really is the primary purpose of school attendance, we urgently need fundamental changes in our society. This is a purpose that schools cannot fulfil even at the best of times.

Secondly, even during the first lockdown, when schools were closed, services for vulnerable children and for the children of key workers were available. If all schools took a general gap year, staff and facilities would be freed up to provide this at a much larger scale. There is no need to force all the ten million students into schools to achieve this kind of care and protection.

“Online teaching is useless.”

Actually, that’s not true. Online teaching is quite successful, and of course, it would be even more successful if it could be adequately developed, not just cobbled together during a global pandemic. Teachers work very hard in online teaching. But at least they don’t put their lives, the lives of their own families and the lives of all the families and random contacts of ten million school children at risk.
There are many creative solutions for all these issues that would not mean forcing ten million children and more than half a million teachers into schools every day.

New York is closing its schools.

Kenya has declared a gap year.

But both public opinion and public policy seem to operate in a fog of dogma that makes it impossible for them to see reality. Closing schools seems to have become some kind of taboo. I believe this taboo is now very dangerous.

Keeping schools open seems to suggest, to many people, a kind of normality that simply doesn’t exist. The ‘second wave’ of this pandemic, driven by the re-opening of schools, is very real and currently killing around 500 peoplehuman beings just like us – every day.

The reality is that if we keep the schools open many of our fellow citizens will die.
So the proponents of keeping schools open need to ask themselves this hard question: ‘How many lives is this worth? How many people do you think should die in order to keep schools open?’

If we really want to save lives, we need to suspend the current school year.🔷

Nyla Nox, Writer.

[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 19 November 2020. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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