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Gavin Williamson fears keeping schools shut until Whitsun could cause issues

Have you, like me, had enough yet? This is the fourth week of school closures and tempers in my household are starting to fray.

Not a day seems to go by without me shouting at my 13-year-old daughter to get out of bed, to put her phone down and to tidy up after herself.

When Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced almost a month ago that schools would close, it reflected the ghastly threat posed by coronavirus.

But does that mean it was correct? I am starting to suspect not.

In fact, I now fear that if we don’t reopen Britain’s schools soon, the damage inflicted on our children’s mental and social wellbeing could be far more injurious in the long-term than if our schools hadn’t been shut in the first place.

I don’t mean to undermine the herculean efforts of teachers, most of whom have tried to keep our children working through online lessons and over email.

But this is no substitute for face-to-face teaching.

Just last week I found my daughter crying with frustration at a maths exercise she could not complete. I felt utterly helpless. If she were in the classroom, she could have asked her teacher for help. But confined to the internet, there was nothing she could do.

Yet with the lockdown, our children’s inability to keep up with the curriculum is only the tip of the iceberg. For schools are one of the few places where children can interact with each other.

At one of the most formative moments of their lives, our children are being kept isolated under lock and key.

We are already seeing the appalling impact this is having on the wellbeing of our young. According to a study published by the University of Oxford at the weekend, one in five children is now so worried about coronavirus that they do not want to leave their homes.

This is the soulless, friendless future we are creating for our children. Nowhere will this be more calamitous than in the poorest families, where children are less likely to have access to a laptop and the internet and will suffer most of all from the break to their education.

It is encouraging, therefore, that a study by University College London suggests that school closures are likely to have a relatively small impact on the spread of coronavirus. Indeed one need only look at Sweden, where, despite schools staying open throughout the crisis, the country recorded its lowest daily number of coronavirus-related deaths last Friday – just 17.

That isn’t to say we should blindly follow suit and open our schools’ gates right away. But there are moderate, practical and safe ways to make a start.

One option would be to stagger the beginning and end of the school day, which would prevent large groups gathering. Assemblies could be stopped and more lessons could be held outside in the school grounds.

Hand-washing would need to be rigorously enforced and children sent home at the first sign of illness.

Indeed, it would be crass to think that opening schools now would be risk-free. But there are also risks to keeping children at home – ones whose repercussions could devastatingly extend into adulthood. With common sense, schools can be opened. And fast.

■Dr Joanna Williams is director of the Cieo think tank

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