The Alternative to Closing Schools

As stifling as Britain’s pandemic rules for adults were, the country seemed determined, in stark contrast to America, to ask as little as possible of children.

An empty classroom with a row of empty, upside-down chairs on a long desk
David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe / Getty

About the author: Stephanie H. Murray is a public-policy researcher turned freelance writer.

In the fall of 2019, my husband and I moved from Wisconsin to Bristol, England, and spent the winter settling into our tiny terraced home, looking forward to a season of exploration that never materialized. Although we were isolated from family and friends, our poorly timed transatlantic move put us in a unique position to observe the respective countries’ approaches to pandemic management, which were, broadly speaking, poles apart.

Restrictions were often much harsher here than in America, particularly in early 2021, when the United Kingdom implemented one of the longest and most stringent lockdowns in the world. Yet as stifling as Britain’s rules for adults were, the country seemed determined, in stark contrast to America, to ask as little as possible of children.

School closures offer one of the clearest illustrations of this split. European countries generally regarded school closures as a measure of last resort, which is why schools here were closed for much shorter spells than in America. Many of my American family members and friends are surprised to learn that schools in the U.K. have never entirely shut down. Even during the strictest portion of last year’s lockdown, when all pubs and restaurants were closed and sitting on a bench with someone you ran into at the park was illegal, in-person schooling remained available for vulnerable kids and children of essential workers.

Back in March 2020, when many people thought schools would be closed for a matter of weeks, such a provision may have seemed insignificant. But the pandemic is entering its third year, and school districts across the U.S. are once again closing their doors. In Chicago, where a huge percentage of public-school students are poor or otherwise vulnerable, instruction has shut down altogether this week (though some schools have remained open for emergency child care), following a tussle over whether to switch to remote learning. As children and essential workers strain under the cumulative pressure, Americans should keep schools open for those who need them most.

In the days leading up to England’s first lockdown, the nursery where my daughter was slated to begin preschool sent out a digital survey to all parents, asking what we did for work. Schools and day cares, we learned, had been instructed to close to all but vulnerable children—such as kids with special needs, those living in temporary accommodations, or those whose families had histories of drug abuse or domestic abuse—and children with caregivers “whose work is critical to the coronavirus response.” This group included not just people in health care but teachers, nursery workers, police, and firefighters, as well as anyone working in food distribution, transportation, or the justice system.

I can’t say for sure why the government here decided to keep schools running for these groups, but to me, it seemed reasonable. After all, school isn’t just for learning; it also provides a vital form of child care, one that some families rely on more than others. For many vulnerable children, school is a lifeline that society should do everything in its power to avoid cutting off. And if someone’s work is considered essential—that is, requiring their physical presence—then so is the child care they require to do it.

Given that one of the primary goals of pandemic management is to protect hospital capacity, the U.K.’s decision not to pull the child-care rug out from under nurses and doctors seems sensible. Finland and Norway made a similar call, offering special care arrangements for children of key personnel. For the most part, American school districts haven't done the same. But even some public-health experts in the United States raised concerns about how school closures would affect health-care capacity. One study published in April 2020 estimated that the American health-care sector has some of the biggest child-care needs in the U.S., and warned that any benefit of school closures would have to be weighed against the potential loss of health-care workers because of their increased caregiving responsibilities.

Here in the U.K., health-care workers are burned out and quitting in larger numbers than usual, but we don’t seem to be experiencing anything like the mass exodus of health-care workers currently under way in the U.S. I won’t claim that school closures account for the difference, but it’s hard not to wonder whether keeping schools open for those on the front lines would have helped. It certainly would have for Meredith Gade, a Virginia nurse whom I interviewed last summer. Gade worked overtime for more than a year, shelling out more than she earned to pay for child care for her two sons. “Do you or do you not want an experienced nurse to be there, able and willing to help?” she asked as she explained her frustration over school closures. She left her job in the spring of 2021.

The U.K.’s strategy had problems of its own. School spots were scarce, and figuring out who should get them wasn’t easy. Because my husband works in health-care IT, for example, our daughters qualified for in-person preschool and nursery during the first lockdown, despite the fact that both he and I are perfectly capable of working from home. Attempting to honor the spirit of lockdown, we declined those spots, but not everyone in our position did the same.

Some essential workers here feel that the current guidelines have produced unfair outcomes. Alastair Hipkins, a postal worker in Bristol, told me that during England’s first lockdown, his then-6-year-old daughter was able to attend school in person, which was a big help, because the postal service had been slammed ever since online shopping exploded under stay-at-home orders. During the second school closure, however, school administrators prioritized children with a parent working for the National Health Service or those with two parents in crucial roles, and his daughter was denied in-person schooling. Hipkins understands that space was limited, and that health-care workers should take priority, but it bothered him that families with, say, two lawyers took precedence over someone like him. “With all due respect, they can flippin’ afford child care,” Hipkins told me.

Keeping schools open for children of essential workers won’t prevent teacher shortages. You can’t open a school for anyone if all of your staff are sick. Even in the event that students must be sent home because of staff shortages, though, official guidance in the U.K. advises that schools should make every effort to continue face-to-face schooling for vulnerable children and children of crucial workers. At the end of last year, when many Welsh schools switched to remote learning because of staff shortages, on-site schooling remained open to pupils with “no other alternatives.”

By now, it’s become impossible to ignore the toll that the pandemic has taken on children in America, particularly the most vulnerable. Evidence suggests that even students who endured relatively short school disruptions in Europe have suffered. School closures may be inevitable during a pandemic, but I’m grateful that the government here has made a meaningful effort to spare essential workers and vulnerable children the worst of them. And as Omicron-induced school closures begin to sweep across America, I hope governments there make the same effort.