Why The U.K. Decided To Keep Schools Open Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Mar 18, 2020
Originally published on March 18, 2020 7:53 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So if we look at Ireland, Italy, Germany France - they have all shut their schools to fight the coronavirus. But in the United Kingdom, millions of students are still in class. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on why the British government says it is bucking the trend and how this is going over.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces the same question at every press conference - when will you close the schools? The answer is always the same - not yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We think at the moment, on balance, it's much better if we can keep schools open, for all sorts of reasons.

LANGFITT: Patrick Vallance, the government's chief scientific adviser, says research suggests children are not big transmitters of coronavirus and only mildly affected by it and that the timing and duration of closures will be crucial. Here he is speaking on LBC talk radio here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATRICK VALLANCE: You would have to close schools for many months, not a few weeks. And one of the questions when you start something is how are you going to undo it? And when you undo it, if you don't get it right, it bounces back again.

LANGFITT: Many here are unconvinced. Some parents have already pulled their children from school; some teachers are horrified. This is utter madness, one principal of a London elementary school wrote on Facebook. I'm being asked to put my staff and children at high risk, like sacrificial lambs. Geoff Barton heads a teacher's union. He says some of his members aren't comfortable being in school.

GEOFF BARTON: One head teacher of a secondary school had a phone call with a member of staff saying she was going to be away, followed by another 16 phone calls - so 17 phone calls from teachers before half past 8:00 saying they were going to be away from school.

RACHAEL WARWICK: My personal view, as a school leader, is that we ought to close schools by the end of the week, have an extended Easter holiday.

LANGFITT: Rachael Warwick works as a principal overseeing three schools about an hour's drive west of London. She says it's becoming more difficult to operate because janitorial and cafeteria staff are staying home, and food and cleaning will soon become problems.

WARWICK: And all of those things are basic in terms of, you know, the hygiene that you would expect in any environment, let alone at a time where we're all trying to be more hygienic to mitigate the risks of coronavirus.

LANGFITT: But Amy Taylor's torn. She teaches science in a south London in high school. Many of her students come from low-income families and rely on the school for meals, and many parents work for England's National Health Service, which will soon bear the brunt of the pandemic.

AMY TAYLOR: If we closed, those children wouldn't get hot meals, and those parents wouldn't be able to go to do their jobs because they'd have to stay at home looking after the children.

LANGFITT: Taylor says the virus has created a dilemma, one that keeps her up at night.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CALM BLUE SEA'S "NOW THOSE ASHES ARE AT THE BOTTOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.