‘SCHOOL’S out forever,” as Alice Cooper put it in 1972 on the title track of his fifth studio album. It looks as if Doctor (honoris causa, Grand Canyon University) Cooper was wrong, though, and that Principal Seymour Skinner (né Armin Tamzarian) of Springfield was nearer the mark when, in season 14 of The Simpsons, he sang: “School’s back in session. Let’s begin our lesson.”

One of the many oddities of our current circumstances, though, is that, contrary to the stereotypes of shock rock or comic fiction, the group most reticent about schools going back is not the children, but teachers. Or to be more precise, teaching unions, which say they would have preferred a more gradual (or “blended”) return to the classroom.

Of course, teachers’ unions, like those for doctors, nurses, emergency service workers, posties, train drivers or other public service workers are – despite their tendency to frame their positions in terms of public interest – chiefly in the business of advancing their members’ interests. That’s as it should be; it is their purpose. And it doesn’t mean that teachers don’t genuinely (as I suspect the overwhelming majority do) have their students’ best interests at heart.

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After hospitals and care homes, there is no greater priority for the restoration of services than attempting to get schools back. The economic damage that has been done to factories, retail outlets, the travel, entertainment and hospitality industries is on an enormous scale, and will take years to recoup; but it should, in the long run, be possible to rectify.

But interruptions in the education of children potentially have a lifelong impact not only on their economic prospects and opportunities, but their development as well-rounded individuals. All the evidence suggests that those who are, from the start, the least advantaged and who thus have the most to gain from education, are those who will suffer most from its suspension – even before the Government marks them down from a B to a C because their school happens to be in Easterhouse. (There has been a 15.2 per cent reduction in the Higher pass rate applied for the most deprived areas, compared with 6.9 per cent in the most affluent.)

There are significant, measurable costs anyway in school closures, particularly for those parents who can’t work, or find themselves constrained by childcare, comparable with those in other areas of the economy. But the educational impact trumps even that.

The quite common experience of those who’ve struggled all their lives with long division because they had chickenpox the week the class “did it” ought to be an indication of just how much effect a five-month hiatus across every subject might have.

The other consideration is that, despite the logistical problems of reorganising schools to minimise the possibility of new outbreaks, the evidence suggests, happily, that they are one of the lowest-risk candidates for infection.

No one is quite sure why that should be; children (particularly of primary school age) seem either to be resistant to infection or asymptomatic, as well as unlikely to pass the virus to adults. Professor Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at Edinburgh University, recently pointed out that, despite thousands of cases studied globally, there hasn’t yet been a confirmed instance of a pupil infecting a teacher.

The most dangerous aspects of schools reopening – some of which have already been addressed by the Government guidance on staggered start times and other measures – is likely to be with parents clustering at the school gates, with transport, and with those children who share their homes with vulnerable adults.

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Teachers and others are being perfectly reasonable when they point to inconsistencies, such as children having to wear masks when they go into shops on the way home from school, but not while they’re actually in the classroom, or the fact that garden centres, theme parks and pubs have been given a higher priority than what could literally shape our children’s future.

But it’s precisely because of that that there should be no foot-dragging on getting students back to as close to normal as can be managed. The attitude of the National Education Union in England, for example, which calls for an “escalation” of action if their 200 conditions for resuming work are not met, hardly seems to be putting pupils’ interests first – though the stance is consistent with their previous refusal to allow teachers to engage with students remotely or by live-streaming lessons.

A similar attitude is shown by parents who take an excessively cautious stance. There may, in a few cases, be good reasons to keep children away from school: if they show obvious symptoms, or if someone else in the household does, perhaps even in the absence of such points if, say, they are in regular contact with an especially vulnerable person.

But those ought to be rare and temporary exceptions. Those who are simply being over-protective should – as they are always advising everyone else to – take heed of the evidence. The damage that is done by keeping children off school is almost certainly greater than any risk from going by a considerable margin, not just because the hazards to health are demonstrably low, but because the disadvantages created by interruptions to schooling are so clearly established and evidenced.

The precautionary principle is urged on us by scientists precisely when evidence is lacking or uncertain; it is, like Occam’s Razor, a general rule of thumb, rather than an instruction – which would in any case by impossible to follow – that any and all types of risk, no matter how slight, should be avoided.

All the same, some people have embraced it with fervour. That yet may prove very damaging to jobs, the economy and social cohesion, but it is at least possible to argue that those potential evils are just material, and that there are more important things in life, not least the preservation of life itself.

That, however, is an argument that simply won’t hold up when (at the risk of sounding like someone about to burst into the chorus of We are the World) it comes to children's futures. They must get back to school this week even if, one suspects, they’ll probably be bombarded with lectures on hand-washing, social distancing, and a curriculum long on the nature of viruses, the history of the Black Death, and Camus’s La Peste.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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