Schools should only be closed “as a last resort” after businesses such as pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops, Anne Longfield says in a new briefing.
However, those classed as vulnerable due to having a social worker, on a child potection plan or EHC (education, health and care) plan should be reclassified as “priority children”, Longfield adds as part of her 10-point plan for any potential local and national lockdowns.
She states: “A concerted effort must be made through the Department for Education’s regional education and children’s teams (REACTs) to work with these families to dramatically increase attendance. The government should consult on the type of children covered by the priority list and allow more flexibility for teachers to identify children as a priority where they have concerns.”
In addition to extra flexibility for schools to add children to a priority list, Longfield also calls for the DfE to expand its technology programme to provide laptops and internet access for disadvantaged children in all year groups.
The DfE’s current programme focuses mainly on pupils in Year 10 due to take GCSE exams next year.
The commissioner also highlights the need for regular, widespread testing for teachers to monitor potential outbreaks of Covid-19 and minimise the closures of schools and childcare settings.
“This will be particularly important in the 2020/21 winter flu season when clusters of flu could be mistaken for a Covid-19 outbreak and result in unnecessary closure or interruption,” Longfield says.
Longfield also urges ministers to ensure childcare settings and health visitor and midwifery services can remain functioning.
Birth registrations should not be paused again despite any further lockdowns, Longfield says.
“Just as we must keep schools open wherever possible, we must also have a proactive approach to maintaining services for children in the early years. Lockdown has made many thousands of babies less visible to services due to reductions in health visitor attendance and birth registrations,” she states.
Mental health services for children and young people must also be improved in light of the pandemic, Longfield says, while restrictions meaning children in secure training centres and young offender institutions can be locked in cells for more than 20 hours a day should be relaxed.
The commissioner has also urged the government to issue clearer guidance to local authorities supporting children living in unregulated supported accommodation and care leavers and has reiterated calls for emergency legislation on children’s social care exemptions to be scrapped.
The briefing also suggests the government should hold a press conference aimed at children, and says children should be allowed and encouraged to submit questions.
Longfield said: “Too often during the first lockdown, children were an afterthought.
“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.”
Responding to the new briefing, councillor Teresa Heritage, vice-chairman of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “We know that many children will have been out of school for up to six months, which will have an impact on their mental wellbeing and development, and we support the children’s commissioner’s calls to keep schools open for as long as is possible.
“Councils have been working closely with schools throughout the coronavirus pandemic to ensure they remain open for vulnerable children and families, and where needed, councils have delivered vital IT equipment for children.
“As we look to return to normal from September, councils will continue to work with all schools and local partners but it will be essential that councils have the capacity and necessary data to play their full part in the Test and Trace programme.
“Any local decision to close a school will need to be based on scientific advice.”