They spoke up as the Children’s Commissioner pleaded for hope and clarity to be given to families whose children are suffering from isolation and falling confidence.
The chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, Conservative MP Robert Halfon, asked the Speaker to force Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to come before MPs to set out a blueprint for opening up classes to all youngsters.
Mark Harper, the chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, told the Standard that a “milestone-based” timetable was needed. The first milestone should be February 15, the date when the four priority groups which account for nine in 10 deaths have been vaccinated.
“The Government should now set out a plan based on the key milestones, showing the country when we can open schools, open the rest of the economy, and give people hope and the ability to plan for the future,” he said.
Education experts were united in warning how damaging school closures are for children, leading to exhaustion, anxiety and isolation.
Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield said: “The first lockdown caused a huge rise in the number of children with serious mental health issues and widened gaps in learning, particularly for the most disadvantaged children.
“Closing schools is bad for children which is why I don’t want them closed for a day longer than necessary. Schools must be the first thing to reopen.
“If children are to be back in the classroom before Easter, the Government will need to make sure primary schools start going back after the next half-term.
“Teachers will need to be a higher priority for vaccines and we need testing regimes that schools have confidence in, alongside catch-up funding, and making sure all schools have an NHS-funded counsellor.”
Mr Halfon told Sky News: “I worry hugely about the damage to mental health, educational attainment.” He said the Government was “firefighting” with coronavirus, adding: “I want a long-term plan for education, I want a route-map out of the coronavirus in terms of getting our kids back into school.”
He accused ministers of making health and the economy the key priorities at the expense of education.
This was denied by sources close to Mr Williamson, who pointed out that last September he fought successfully for schools to reopen ahead of pubs.
“Gavin and the Prime Minister had said repeatedly that they want schools to open first and as soon as possible,” said a source. “These decisions are not taken in isolation by DfE, they are part of a national effort to control the virus.”
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson, on a visit to a vaccination site at Barnet Football Club in north London, said: "Daily we're looking at the data and trying to work out when we're going to be able to lift restrictions.
"Schools obviously will be a priority but I don't think anybody would want to see the restrictions lifted so quickly while the rate of infection is still very high so as to lead to another great spread of infection.
"We've now got the R down below 1 across the whole of the country, that's a great achievement, we don't want to see a huge surge of infection just when we've got the vaccination programme going so well and people working so hard.
"I understand why people want to get a timetable from me today, what I can tell you is we'll tell you, tell parents, tell teachers as much as we can as soon as we can."
Education officials are cautious about setting out a plan in case another mutation of coronavirus forces it to be changed. There was uproar when the new term on January 4 was scrapped after a day because of the Kent variant spreading out of control, with classrooms seen as a critical potential vector.
Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted: “Closed schools increases inequality, exposes the most vulnerable, and creates gaps that cannot be filled. We must open schools as soon as possible,” adding: “Close the borders, vaccinate the teachers, open the schools!”
Former cabinet minister Esther McVey said the Government should take into account the damage the prolonged closures were doing to the future prospects of a generation of children.
“We genuinely seem to have forgotten about the children,” she told The Daily Telegraph. “Millions of them are missing out on an education, not developing socially with their friends and aren’t allowed to enrich their lives by playing sports and music any more. They are the pandemic’s forgotten victims and we’ve got to start thinking about their prospects and futures as well.”
Emma Pattison, head of Croydon High School said: “It is impossible to overstate the impact of school closure on the lives of teachers, children and their families; the increasing anxiety of examination candidates, the exhaustion of delivering lessons online and the isolation and loneliness of children at such crucial stages of development. Getting schools open for as many pupils as possible must be a priority over the coming weeks and vaccinations for teachers should play a key part in that mission.”
Carol Chandler Thompson, head of Blackheath High School, said: “It’s no secret that the uncertainty for schools throughout the pandemic has been a challenge, and the impact on pupils and staff cannot be overstated. All schools need to give as much focus to staff and student wellbeing as they do to academia at this time. Fostering an open and honest dialogue about these challenges between staff and students is a good place to start.”
Alun Ebenezer, head of Fulham Boys School: “We need to get pupils back as soon as possible, straight after half term. The aim should be to vaccinate all school staff in the next three weeks which, with a real can-do attitude and resolve, is possible. The priority group for vaccination has to be those who have to go out ‘on the front line’ to make this happen. Families have to take responsibility for ensuring their children don’t visit vulnerable family members until this is past.” Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, called for a phased approach, saying there is an argument for younger children and those from more deprived backgrounds to be first back.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he said: “We know the rhythms and routines very early on for those children learning the habits of reading are absolutely essential so there is an argument not just educationally but on the scientific grounds of transmissibility of starting with very young children and getting those habits, routines and rhythms for them in their primary schools.” He said the discussion about opening schools needs to be nuanced rather than an “all in” or “all-out” approach.
Over the weekend, Health Secretary Matt Hancock refused to guarantee that they would be back before Easter, saying that infection rates would need to come down further.
While the vaccine rollout was making “brilliant progress”, he said the NHS remained under intense pressure and that any general easing of lockdown restrictions in England was a “long, long, long way” off.