Education must be given priority over pubs and shops in planning for future coronavirus lockdowns, the Children’s Commissioner for England has warned.
Anne Longfield said reopening schools should be the main objective claiming children were too often “an afterthought” during the first lockdown.
Her scathing comments came as she published a paper setting out the key actions needed to ensure that youngsters are “at the heart” of future plans.
She argued that if any future local or national lockdown takes place, schools should be the last places to be locked down, after pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops.
It comes after a new modelling study implied that reopening schools in September must be combined with a high-coverage test-trace-isolate strategy to avoid a second wave of Covid-19 later this year.
Ms Longfield’s briefing paper says keeping schools open should be the “absolute priority”, adding: “Education should be prioritised over other sectors: first to open, last to close.”
The Children’s Commissioner believes reducing Covid-19 transmission in the community is very important “but it should not be automatically assumed that this requires closing schools – except as a last resort”.
The briefing paper says rapid testing of pupils and teachers, means that any confirmed Covid-19 cases and their close contacts can be isolated without necessarily having to send entire classes or year groups home.
Ms Longfield said that if schools are forced to close, facilities must remain open for children of key workers and vulnerable pupils.
She added that consideration should be given to the impact on children expected to take exams next summer so they are not disadvantaged, especially in the case of extended local lockdowns.
Ms Longfield went on: “Too often during the first lockdown, children were an afterthought. Despite the welcome decision to keep schools open for vulnerable children, too few attended.
“Those schools that did bring back more children before the summer holidays often found classes were only half-full. That must change in September. The Government’s promise that all children will be back to school after the summer holidays is a step in the right direction. However, if a second wave occurs, children must be at the heart of coronavirus planning.
“That means schools must be the first to reopen and the last to close during any local lockdowns. Regular testing must be also in place for teachers and pupils, to reassure parents.
“If the choice has to be made in a local area about whether to keep pubs or schools open, then schools must always take priority.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said he agreed with the Children’s Commissioner about it being vital to get children back to school as soon as possible, adding that it is also important to prevent a worsening Covid-19 outbreak.
He said: “The last thing anyone wants to see is the reopening of schools leading to a resurgence in the prevalence of the virus. There are many factors that will contribute to this, most of which are entirely outside a school’s control.”