Faith groups call for safe and swift return to school

Pic: BUCS Creative Commons License

by Lianne Kolirin, 19 May 2020

Religious educators have backed government calls for a gradual return to school from next month for the sake of young people’s wellbeing.

The negative impact of keeping children at home indefinitely could outweigh the risk of spreading the coronavirus, some have warned, as the debate about when schools should restart rages on.

The Church of England, which runs a quarter of the country’s schools, has urged caution against a blanket ban on schools reopening. It comes amid heightened tensions between the government and teaching unions, some of which have urged their members against returning to work next month.

The Rev Nigel Genders, the Church of England’s chief education officer,  told the Daily Mail: “Remaining at home for a prolonged period will affect the mental, spiritual, physical and social wellbeing of children. We are particularly concerned about the impact on children from the most disadvantaged families and the potential this has for a widening in the attainment gap.”

Unions have accused the government of recklessness, urging that schools should remain restricted to vulnerable children and those of key workers until the reproduction number (the “R number”) is further reduced and the testing rate is considerably higher.

However, on Monday, 22 of the country’s best-known academy trusts published a letter calling for the government not to extend the delay. Among them was Star Academies, formerly the Tauheedul Education Trust, which was a chain of Muslim faith schools, but now encompasses non-religious schools too.

The letter stated: “For any child, prolonged absence from school is concerning academically and socially. For disadvantaged pupils, it is calamitous. If we do not take action and reopen schools soon, the impact of lost learning could be irreparable.

“The gaps between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in our communities are widening daily and we will face years of frantic endeavour, in inevitable austerity, to compensate for this dislocation of learning.”

It continued: “reopening is essential for the sake of our children’s education and our nation’s future”, adding that any reopening will be preceded with “rigorous risk assessment”.

Paul Barber, director of the Catholic Education Service, agreed with the sentiment, confirming that Catholic schools were planning for a return as soon as practicable.

He told the Religion Media Centre: “Catholic schools have a particular care for the poorest and most vulnerable in society, and are rightly concerned about the effects of a prolonged absence from school for these and other children. Many Catholic schools are therefore already planning for opening in a safe and sustainable manner as soon as conditions allow it.”

The current crisis had seen schools, teachers and support staff go “above and beyond the call of duty” Mr Barber said, adding: “Any phased reopening must place the safety, health and wellbeing of pupils and staff as its No 1 priority and should be done in close collaboration with dioceses and local authorities.

“In this respect, schools must be provided with clear information, proper support and enough time to plan and make thorough risk assessments, before they make the final decision to reopen. The Catholic Education Service remains committed to working with the government to ensure that these key elements of support are put in place for dioceses and governing bodies.

“With pupils having missed a significant part of the school year, parents need to know that, as we slowly return to some semblance of normality, Catholic schools will be able to provide the pastoral, educational and spiritual support that are so needed in these challenging times.”

Rabbi David Meyer is executive director of Partnerships for Jewish Schools (PaJeS), which provides services, support and strategy. He told the Religion Media Centre that the organisation ran a video conference call for 82 participants from 60 different schools last week to discuss the many issues which a return to school raises.

“There is not a massive difference between faith schools and all other schools,” he said. “It has to be safe for students and teachers to go back into school whenever we can allow them to do that. However, it’s also important to note that there’s no such thing as absolute safety — there are always risks associated with absolutely everything.

“To a certain extent it’s about balancing risk. We need to be realistic as unfortunately this virus and pandemic isn’t going to be a short-term issue.

“Our schools are doing a fantastic job but we also have to be sensitive about the reality that children have to get back into schools as soon as it is safe and practical to do so.”

Much has gone in to planning for this eventuality, according to Rabbi Meyer. Besides deep cleaning and ensuring social distancing can be guaranteed, schools also need to balance the role of teaching some students within school — while maintaining the education of those studying remotely. All that, while simultaneously ensuring the safety and physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of teachers, children and their families.

Parents and politicians also had a vital role to play in their partnership with schools, he said. “The pressures placed on our teachers and head teachers is something well beyond what anyone could have expected. Enormous credit needs to be given to the way they have risen to this challenge.”

He called on the government to issue a clearer message, while simultaneously leaving “some level of responsibility and flexibility to head teachers”, adding: “We must try to ensure that we do everything to create as safe an environment as possible. There’s a lot that can be done and it’s beyond just social distancing.”