Pressure grows to keep schools shut in January
- Credit: PA
Pressure is growing on the Government to abandon plans to reopen secondary schools from next week amid concerns it could cause further spikes in coronavirus cases.
Teaching unions have warned that allowing students to return will put them at risk of catching the new variants of Covid-19.
Members of the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have also reportedly told ministers schools reopening could cause infections to spiral.
Headteachers have been left in the dark after a meeting between ministers, Downing Street officials and the Department for Education (DfE) on Monday failed to resolve the situation with less than a week to go until all primary school children and exam year secondary students are due to return on January 4.
Under the proposed staggered return, they would be followed on January 11 by all secondary school pupils with mass testing to combat the spread of the virus.
However reports suggest ministers are torn between heeding its scientific advisers over the rapid spread of the new Covid variant, and warnings from the DfE that delaying the reopening of schools and colleges could jeopardise next year’s exams.
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Jess Balado, joint chair of the Norfolk head’s association, Educate Norfolk, said there was a lack of concrete information from the DfE.
She said: “I think the staggered start goes some way toward mitigating things but I don’t think it is ideal. If we are looking at the safety of the whole community there needs to be an awful lot more in place to make sure that is paramount given the fact that the spread of the new strain of the virus is so virulent in this area.
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“I am cautious about anything at the moment but ultimately we will have to do whatever the DfE tells us to do.”
Former Suffolk head Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL head teachers' union, said it was “frankly ludicrous” to think schools and colleges would be able to recruit and train the workforce needed to carry out testing in time.
He said: “We haven’t had any contact from the government since Christmas about whether or not the spring term will go ahead as planned, and it has been intensely frustrating that there has been a swirl of speculation with no clarity and with less than a week before term begins.”
Both the NASUWT teachers' union and the National Education Union (NEU) have written to the education secretary Gavin Williamson expressing concerns.
Norwich South MP Clive Lewis is amongst those to have backed NEU calls for schools and colleges to remain closed for at least the first two weeks of January, except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.
In a tweet he said: “The predicted infection rates for January and February with the new Covid strain are a complete game changer. Schools and colleges should delay January opening.”
Jessica Lissack said: “They don’t know enough about this new variant to be sure our children are safe. Also keeping schools open means parents are mixing at the gates and children are mixing with more than three households.
“Don’t get me wrong I want my daughter to have an education but don’t really think sending her back to school at this stage is a good idea.”
Stacie Moore added: “We aren't allowed to mix with anyone being in Tier 4 - how is it OK to allow the children too when they are saying the new variant is affecting children? Absolutely none of this makes sense.”
Gary Scott, who was formerly a Norfolk secondary headteacher for 20 years, suggested all schools could remain closed until February, except for vulnerable and key worker children, with half-term and Easter holidays being reduced to make up the lost time.
“I recognise that it would be difficult, but the seriousness of the pandemic demands creative thinking and solutions: better to have a plan than continue with the Government being behind the curve and making 11th hour decisions,” he said.