Governments are panicking about the economic impact of coronavirus on their system. And as one CNN reporter put it last week, “Nobody can completely reopen the economy if the schools are still shut.”
Governments want schools open so parents can be pushed back to work. They claim more noble motivations.
In France, schools are set to gradually reopen from 11 May. French education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said last week that this is “progressive”.
“We need to save the pupils that are drifting away because of the lockdown,” he said.
President Emmanuel Macron has also claimed reopening schools helps the most vulnerable. “Too many children, notably in poorer areas in the countryside, are deprived of school without access to digital tools,” he said.
Governments have spent years slashing school funding and ramming through measures to drive up poverty.
So it’s touching to see their concern. It’s echoed by other establishment politicians.
In Britain Labour leader Keir Starmer has said reopening schools should be a priority because lockdowns increase inequalities.
In reality he is desperate to show Labour is “responsible” and can be trusted with “the economy”.
Closing schools does hit working class children—and their families—the hardest.
A study from the Sutton Trust educational charity last week showed that children from middle class homes were “much more likely” to join daily online lessons than those from working class families. More than twice as many children from private schools had accessed online lessons each day compared to state schools.
It’s much harder for parents with less space, money and resources to have their kids at home full time than it is for richer families.
Lots of working class families face the added stress of having lost their jobs or suffered pay cuts.
The burden of full time childcare and home schooling hits working class women particularly hard. Many poorer children won’t have enough to eat, and for some children home won’t be a safe place.
But governments that feign concern about the impact of school closures on ordinary people are hypocrites.
If they really cared, why not give all parents extra money? Send out food parcels to every household? Provide laptops, free broadband and textbooks? Suspend energy bills and put a freeze on rents and mortgage payments?
None of these things are impossible.
Instead, politicians can’t even make sure schools that stay open have enough personal protective equipment.
Their priority is the health of their system, not our health.
Former Tory chancellor Philip Hammond said this week that Britain should start reopening the economy now—and accept that people will catch the virus.
He said we should assume that “for the time being, we are coexisting with this virus rather than conquering it”.
And former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said having children back in school is “key to unlocking labour”.
Others are more cautious because they fear the political and economic damage that a second peak in deaths could bring. But none have our interests at heart.
Coronavirus and lockdowns have hit the poorest hardest. Getting the economy moving again can sound good, especially if you have lost your job.
But moving back towards “business as usual” won’t guarantee things get better for workers.
States will try to make ordinary people pay for the economic crisis they have presided over.
We should resist measures that put ordinary people at risk.
That doesn’t mean schools should remain closed indefinitely.
But how they reopen and when should be guided by what’s in the best interests of pupils and workers—not bosses.