Questions around the safety of children returning to primary schools amid the new strain of COVID and rising cases have been raised by teaching unions.
The National Education Union highlighted at the end of December that the minutes of SAGE 74 held on 22nd December reveal that SAGE told ministers that they needed to close schools to contain coronavirus before Christmas. They are so concerned about the new variant that they cannot be sure that measures like the Spring lockdown will be enough to get R below 1.
The minutes stated: “It is highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November (i.e. with schools open) would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant. R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools. It remains difficult to distinguish where transmission between children takes place, and it is important to consider contacts made outside of schools.”
Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “SAGE have told the government that they need to close schools to contain coronavirus and the government have decided to ignore their advice. It is also clear from the SAGE documents that school pupils and school staff are infecting each other, and that school age children have the highest rates of infection.
“On this basis we do not believe that it is safe for the community, pupils or school staff for schools and colleges to reopen on Monday.
“We believe that schools and colleges should remain closed until mid-January at the earliest so that the government can make an informed decision on the safety of reopening schools as SAGE advise,” he added.
On 30 December, the government announced that in the week commencing 4 January, secondary schools should only provide on-site education to vulnerable children and children of critical workers, and prioritise remote education to those in exam years
In the week commencing 11 January, secondary schools should provide on-site education to vulnerable children, of critical workers and those in exam years, and provide remote education to all other pupils and then from 18 January, all pupils should return to on-site education.
On 1 January, it emerged that primary schools in London would not be opening until at least 18 January.
Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, then raised concerns as to why schools were not re-opening in London, which is in Tier 4, whereas in other areas which are also in Tier 4, schools would be opening.
Dr Bousted said: “What is right for London is right for the rest of the country. With the highest level of Covid-19 infection, and hospitals buckling under the tsunami of very ill patients, it is time for ministers to do their duty - to protect the NHS by following SAGE advice and close all primary and secondary schools to reduce the R rate below 1.
“It is time for the government to protect its citizens, and in particular its children, by shutting all primary schools for two weeks in order for the situation to be properly assessed, schools made much safer and children and their families protected,” she added.
However, prime minister Boris Johnson has said that there was “no doubt in my mind that schools are safe,” and urged parents to send children back to school this week. However, he did not rule out further closures.
Today (Monday) Boris Johnson has said there is “no question” that stricter measures will be announced by the government in due course to prevent the spread of coronavirus and predicted "tough, tough" weeks ahead.
The recorded more than 50,000 new confirmed Covid cases for the sixth day in a row on Sunday.
Unions GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, UNISON and Unite have issued a joint statement today on the safe re-opening of schools which states: “The government’s chaotic handling of the opening of schools has caused confusion for teachers, school staff and parents alike. Bringing all pupils back into classrooms while the rate of infection is so high is exposing education sector workers to serious risk of ill-health and could fuel the pandemic.
“Unions have called for a pause in the reopening of schools for anyone other than vulnerable children and children of key workers, and a move to remote learning for all while Covid-secure working arrangements are reviewed. All school staff continuing to work in schools should be given priority access to Covid-19 vaccinations.
“Instead of casually asserting that schools are safe, the Prime Minister should sit down with unions to discuss a joint approach to ensuring safe working arrangements in all schools and prioritising enabling all pupils have the equipment and access they need to receive a high standard of remote learning until the safety of them and the staff in their school can be guaranteed.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “We believe that it is wrong to keep people in harm’s way whilst the implications of the new variant of the virus are still being discovered. The currently available information contains no solid scientific evidence regarding the impact of the new variant on schools. In particular, there is nothing that outlines the risks to pupils and teachers of maintaining in-person tuition. With this in mind we had begun legal proceedings against the government to force them to disclose the scientific information they are withholding.
“We have asked the government to share the evidence justifying distinctions drawn between primary and secondary schools, the geographical distinctions they have made and the evidence justifying the compulsory introduction of mass-testing,” he added.
The NAHT also plans to issue guidance to headteachers, which will recommend they take no action against staff who refuse to return to work because they feel it is unsafe. However, as one teacher told us, “if you don’t go in when the school is open, you increase stress within the school such as not enough staff and the need for supply teachers which can increase risk”.
Parents are also taking matters into their own hands. On social media, one parent of two primary school age children said: “I’m not sending my two back. I’m listening to SAGE not Boris”.
Another said: “100% my little lad won’t be going back Monday they can fine me if they like”.
One more added: “Rather risk a fine than my child! If schools are safe, why close some? That’s my question here. He wouldn’t close any surely? Tier 4 London school closed, Tier 4 local school open”.
However, chief inspector of Ofsted Amanda Spielman told the Sunday Telegraph that she welcomed the “real consensus that schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen”. In a series of reports before Christmas, the chief inspector had warned that some children had regressed in basic skills during lockdown while older pupil’s mental health had been affected.
Furthermore, child abuse could be going undetected with children being in lockdown and away from the watchful eyes of teachers and children’s services professionals.
The NAHT are expecting their response to their question about the scientific data that underpins the government’s assertions that schools are safe by 4pm today (Monday).