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Concerns raised over whether it is safe for children to return to school

Public services union UNISON is urging the government to clarify how it is going to keep pupils, staff and parents safe in schools before they plan to reopen them.

The government announced on Sunday that the plan is for schools to re-open to children in a phased manner, starting with Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 from potentially 1 June 2020. Schools are currently open to the children of key workers and vulnerable children in care or who are allocated a social worker. However, Department for Education figures showed recently that just 5 per cent of vulnerable children are in fact attending school.

UNISON has called on the government to stop “dodging the issue of safety and provide a clear explanation of how schools keep pupils, staff and parents safe before any mass reopening”.

Head of education at the union Jon Richards said: “A rushed and chaotic reopening of schools will do more harm than good and could well be dangerous.

“Children, parents and staff are worried by the government’s cavalier attitude. They all need to be confident their safety is at the top of the government’s list,” he added.

School support staff are worried at what they see as the government’s ‘cavalier’ approach to safety in English schools, which will needlessly put their health, and that of children and parents, at risk, UNISON says.

School staff are still in the dark about the availability and use of protective equipment, cleaning products, how social distancing will work when dealing with very young children, and whether track and trace will be up and running to nip any local outbreaks in the bud, the union adds.

Scotland and Wales taking a different approach to England has further complicated matters and added to the air of confusion and concern.

Calls by UNISON, other education unions and the TUC to work with the government to develop a coherent plan to safely open schools have so far fallen on deaf ears, UNISON added.

“Valid questions have gone unanswered as schools are pushed to reopen, regardless of whether it’s safe to do so,” said Jon Richards.

“Ministers must pause their plans and work together with unions to create safe schools,” he added.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Head-Teachers has given evidence to the education select committee and raised concerns about children returning to schools from 1 June 2020.

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said the association had asked members this week whether they thought the government's proposals would be feasible in their schools.

- 70% of headteachers said it would not be feasible for reception and years one and six to come back to school from 1 June.

- 97% said it would not be feasible for all year groups to be back in primary school for a month before the end of the school year.

- A number of headteachers raised the issue of nursery classes, which were added by the government after the prime minister's initial announcement.

Paul Whiteman said: “I gave evidence to the Parliamentary Education Select Committee. Among other things, I was able to use your feedback to tell MPs that a large proportion of our members do not believe it will be possible to expand pupil numbers in the way the government has currently described based on these timescales.

“I explained the issues to the secretary of state too. And I asked again for a clearer explanation of the scientific and medical advice the government is relying on to make these decisions.

“If there is to be an increase in the number of pupils attending school, we need a careful, measured and methodical plan that's built around the highest safety standards so that schools can do everything in their power to reduce the risks posed to all members of their community.

“The information from the government, as currently set out, does not provide us with that plan,” he added.

Mr Whiteman added that the guidance is notably silent on what the science says when it comes to the safety of adults in schools. While obviously it is imperative to know about the impact and risk to children, schools also need to know about the risk to staff, parents and the wider community too.

He said the next few days, the NAHT will continue to engage with the government, other unions and the wider public with a view to issuing advice to members. While the guidance will not answer all the questions raised, it should provide practical information to schools.

“I should also make it very clear that any advice we publish is not an endorsement of the government's current approach. The aim of our advice, as always, will be to assist you in making the best decisions for your school,” he concluded.

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