Local Government Association demands schools in areas with large BAME population should be allowed to open later

Rupanjana Dutta Wednesday 20th May 2020 04:52 EDT

Schools in areas where there is a large population of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) residents should be allowed to open later, the Local Government Association (LGA) has urged. They have asked more power to decide on matters of importance such as school or nursery closures if testing indicates cluster of Covid-19 cases. The LGA has also asked for greater flexibility to allow some schools to take their own decisions about reopening - in consultation with their councils. 

Data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that ethnic minority groups are particularly vulnerable, especially when all socio-demographic factors-, age and health are taken into account. If just considering age, black women were 4.3 times more likely to die from a Covid-19 related death, and black men 4.2 times more likely, than their white counterparts. People of Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and mixed ethnicity also have a raised risk of death, in comparison to he white population.

A Government Spokesperson told Asian Voice exclusively, “We’re now past the peak of the virus, and so it is right that we plan for the first phase of a controlled and careful return of some year groups from 1 June, at the earliest.

“We’ve set out guidance so schools can put in place appropriate measures to reduce transmission substantially, including:

  • reduced class sizes and keeping children in small groups
  • staggered break and lunch times, as well as drop offs and pick ups
  • increased cleaning, reduced use of shared items and using outdoor space
  • avoiding contact with anyone with symptoms
  • frequent hand cleaning and good respiratory hygiene practices

“On Friday, the government and scientific experts met with union leaders to hear directly on the advice underpinning our approach.”

But LGA said there are many concerns about how schools will be able to impose strict social distancing measures. They are therefore asking the Government to urgently publish the scientific evidence that underpins advice to reopen schools to reassure parents, pupils and teachers that it is safe to return from June 1. 

The LGA believes that without any scientific evidence about the health risks facing staff and other children’s families if a pupil contracts and takes the coronavirus home with them, parents will not have the reassurance needed to send their children back to school or early year settings. This may mean a child or young person will miss out on key development opportunities.

Emphasis on collective mechanisms

Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said, “We know parents are anxious about sending their children back to school or nursery.

“Plans to re-open schools and early years settings must focus on reassuring parents that it will be safe for children to return to school. Publication of the scientific advice is vital to help provide that reassurance.The safety of staff, parents and families is absolutely paramount.

“Councils need to be able to close provision where testing indicates clusters of new Covid-19 cases and it is vital that schools have the resources to provide staff with necessary protective equipment, as well as soap and hand sanitiser for cleaning.”

In Brent, according to the 2011 Census, the BAME population is as high as 63.73%, with 18.64% Indians and 34.06% Asians. Cllr Ketan Sheth, Brent Council’s Chair of Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee highlighted that effective management mechanisms between national and local government are critical, “The role of education in daily life as well as society is very important and leaves a great impact on our progress as a community,” he said.

“Now, we have started discussions to ease our coronavirus lockdown, by re-opening schools in a bid to restart our economy. However concerns this might become a breeding ground for a second wave of Covid-19 cases may convince parents to keep their children at home. 

“The role of local government is the key to unlocking, as it knows its people, communities and children. Daily local government delivers services to their local residents. Therefore, it only stands to reason that local government are a vital ingredient to a community solution.

“As Covid-19 shows, pandemics are complex social and behavioural challenges and not just technocratic issues. Parents, teachers, children are grappling with the threat of contracting the infection or dealing with personal loss. Effective management mechanisms between national and local government are critical.

“Anxiety will linger over infection rates, but if we work together, at a local level, in the communities where we live, we can be agile, and creative, in our services: together we can do it locally.”

But Cllr Ameet Jogia from Harrow Council emphasised that parents will be given a discretion to make the final decision, “It is understandably a very anxious time for many parents. However, the Government is keen to put a plan in place to help bring back children to schools as soon as possible to restore routine and normality which is essential for their education and wellbeing.

"Nonetheless, the welfare of children and staff has been at the heart of all decision making. Schools will return on 1stJune, only if the science suggests it is safe to do so. Parents will also be given discretion to make the final decision, based on individual circumstances.

"In the meantime, the Government remains in constant contact with heads and teachers’ unions, and will carry on doing so, working on any issues they may have.”

According to 2011 Census, Harrow has 57.93% BAME population, with 42.2% Asians and 26.3% Indians.

Cllr Imran Khan, Bradford Council’s portfolio holder for education, employment and skills, told the newspaper, “Bradford Council has no intention of directing schools to open on 1 June or to force parents to send their children back and we are committed to working in partnership with school leaders, families and trade unions so that they can make sure their schools are safe environments for our children whenever they choose to open. Parents will not be fined if they choose not to send their children back to school at this time.
“Obviously we will always want children to be at school so they get the best life outcomes and so that vulnerable children are safe.
“Many schools in our district have been working hard over the past two months of the pandemic to support vulnerable children and the children of key workers and these activities have gone well beyond what would normally be expected of school staff.
“Last week the Government announced that some year groups - Nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 - will be able to return to school from 1 June at the earliest.
"In Bradford, we are very aware that schools will need to reopen too at some point in the future but during this pandemic keeping pupils, staff and their families safe has to be our top priority.
“We have been working closely with head teachers to establish exactly what is needed for them reopen safely. Each school is different, and we believe that head teachers know their pupils and their circumstances and are best placed to decide whether or how their schools should reopen.  Each school is carrying out a detailed risk assessment so they can establish based on evidence whether it is safe to open or not.
“We will back the schools and support whatever decisions that individual heads and governing bodies make, whether they open on a limited basis or continue to open just for vulnerable children and the children of key workers as they do now. Once schools have established what they are able to do we will work with them to make sure this information is widely available to parents.
“We will continue to liaise closely with the Department for Education so they are fully sighted on the issues that affect the children and families of Bradford. What we need is a planned, careful and robust way out of this lockdown for schools. We are therefore calling on the government to publish the scientific evidence so that everyone is equipped with the information and can be reassured on when it is safe to open.
“Schools across the Bradford District have been supporting children and their families throughout this crisis and we are hugely grateful for the continued efforts of all schools and their staff.”

Almost 27% of Bradford's population is British Asian with 20.4% Pakistanis- the highest among the group, according to 2011 Census.

Parents sceptical of school reopening 

Chandrani lives in Ealing with her husband and two children, one 8 and the other just 2 years old. According to the round of ethnic group population projections (EGPP) by the Greater London Authority in 2016, Ealing’s BAME population was 53.1% in 2016, projected to be 54.4% by 2021 and by 2050 it is expected to grow by 14.1%. Their largest ethnic group is Indian which is 13.8% of the population. Speaking to Asian Voice, she said, “My older child is not in the grades which will be reopening this June. However, until there is substantial proof that children can maintain physical distance of 2 metres from each other in the school and they will in no way carry back the virus to home, I will not send them to school. 

“To me my child should be healthy first and living with a healthy family. Then comes the need of completing syllabus or sitting for exam etc.

“We can work from home, so we do not have an issue of childcare. For now, school spaces should only be kept for the limited number of children, whose parents have to go out for their livelihood. Others should be continuing home learning thus lowering the chance of bringing in infection from school. We seriously doubt that any social distancing can be maintained amongst children at school.”

More than 560,000 people signed a petition on change.org started by Lucy Browne, calling for parents to be given the choice to send their children back to school next month. Teaching Unions also raised serious concerns about the government’s plan to start reopening schools from 1 June, describing it as ‘reckless’ and unsafe.

Though many parents have highlighted mental health of their children is getting affected due to the lockdown, they fear ensuring social distancing in below 10-year olds is never possible. Moreover, they also feel that trying to keep children at a safe distance from one another will pose tremendous challenge for the teachers, leaving them with very little time to actually dedicate towards teaching.

Atrayee lives in Beckenham, Bromley with her almost 8-year-old son and husband. Only 15.68% of Bromley’s population is BAME with around 2.01% Indians. Speaking to Asian Voice, she said, “Although my locality doesn’t have a high Asian population, I was happy to know that the government thought of reopening schools in June. However, being in touch with teachers, I’ve come to know that schools are not equipped to maintain social distancing as per government rules and the new regulations are almost unrealistic. I am concerned about the mental health of our children, not being allowed to hug and touch their friends. It won’t be easy for them at all. I look forward to sending my son to school but since he’s in Year 2, we are unsure when he can join!”

Gopal from Newham thinks ‘contact tracing’ is the solution for sending back to children to school at the earliest. He and his wife have decided against sending their 11-year-old daughter to school at the moment. According to the 2011 Census, 71.03% of Newham’s population is BAME, out of which 46.1% is Asian and 15% is Indian. Speaking to Asian Voice, he said, “Look at Germany. They could control the virus and the transmission rate because of the possibility of contact tracing. Unless we can put that in place- and one that is culturally sensitive and particularly equipped to deal with our community, there is no point in sending my daughter back to school. I know she misses her friends, and it is hard, as much as it is hard for parents. But I cannot let her go back to school, unless I am sure.”

Chandni lives with 6-year-old daughter and husband near Lee. The borough of Lewisham and Greenwich has 46.4% BAME population, according to the 2011 Census, with 1.7% Indians. Speaking to Asian Voice, she reiterated the same thing. “While the decision to reopen schools from 1st June is based on some scientific evidence that children are least affected by the virus, there is still a risk that they could get infected, as it is almost impossible to enforce social distancing in small children in my opinion,” she said.

“Therefore, inspite of how well schools follow guidelines, the school environment will still be risky for the little ones. My daughter has adjusted to the virtual lessons by the school. I believe schools will take at least a couple of weeks to train children to follow new safety and hygiene rules. By the time, she will get used to all that, it will be time for summer holidays. Moreover, I feel that ensuring social distancing among the little ones will pose tremendous challenge for the teachers leaving them with little time to dedicate towards teaching.”

But Moona, a secondary school teacher, is keen to go back to school for the sake of her students. She told the newspaper, “Many of our children are from disadvantaged background. They don’t have the equipment to study online, or their interactions could be minimal. The GCSE and A-Levels students next year will really suffer if this continues. The best resource in that classroom is me (a teacher). From scientific point of view, until they find a vaccine, going back to school will be risky. But I can see why we need to go back to school. I am worried about children’s and parents’ mental health. The communication skills that we develop at school, we cannot develop those through online classes. I want to go back but I understand why my colleagues may not want to.”

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