Reopening schools is bad science

Mike Downham explains the poor science behind the government plans for schools reopening. 

Artwork by Colin Revolting

Recent headlining news – that all four UK Chief Medical Officers are reassuring parents about how safe it is for children to go back to school – demonstrates bad science on three counts:

  1. While children are presumed to be at low risk from the virus, the extent to which it’s safe for teachers, other school workers, parents, grandparents and the local community depends heavily on the infection levels in the wider community. If this is high, as it is in quite a number of localities at the moment, schools become spreaders. The Independent Sage Committee is clear about this.
  2. The comparison made between the risks of infection and the risks of being off school is false. The CMOs are conflating the known damage inflicted on children who in the past have been off school for long periods at a time when most children were not off school, with the unique Covid-19 experience of all children being off school for five months, most of the time with their parents off work or working from home. We don’t know anything yet about how damaging, or not, these five months have been for children.
  3. The four CMOs can only be saying this at one and the same time because of pressure from the Government. This is political propaganda, not science.

If we accept the definition of science as ‘the state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding’ – we know the scientifically correct reasons for this news item. The UK Government wants children back in school for two related reasons: first, so that their parents can go back to work to support the capitalist economy; second, so that the children can pass exams which qualify them to work in or have further training for that economy. The second reason is also the fundamental reason for the recent confusion about exam results, which may prove to have done more damage to children than their time out of school.


  1. I think this article is poor. I think anyone who is a parent is trying to balance the risk of their kids going back to school – and the social interaction and sense of place from which they benefit immeasurably – and the parent’s judgement about whether this is wise.

    Also, after six months we need to be productive on our own account, whether through paid work or not, to have space to create.

    There is a myriad of factors which we are trying to negotiate in this situation, wanting not to put our kids or teachers at risk, but also understanding that prolonged cancellation of everything that makes this system bearable is massively mentally taxing. Our grandparents are seeing and hugging our kids right now. Infection rates are relatively low. They will go up. I have accepted losing my job as part of the price for being ready (gender implications of this whole thing are really pressing! More than even having kids in the first place!).

    My kids take precedence. They need to have attention and understanding. But they will go to school right now, because that is so important for them and we might get away with it, as we did when my son went back in early July. It’s a complicated question, a local question, which we will respond to when necessary, but the mental health and normality of school is very very important for them right now.

    It’s really not a simple question, but if there is a need to put society first I will do it. I’m quite practised now.

    I wish there was a system backing up my instinct which made me feel trust that we were handling things as a whole. But there isn’t, so I need to do things according to my understanding of the situation.


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