‘Not safe to reopen schools,’ warn teachers’ unions


Plans to reopen primary schools in England do not have adequate safety measures and need to be halted, warns an alliance of school teachers’ unions.

A joint education union statement called on the government to “step back” from a 1 June start date.

In the House of Commons, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson warned against “scaremongering” over safety.

But his department’s chief scientific adviser cast doubt on suggestions the virus spreads less among children.

Mr Williamson, facing questions from MPs on reopening schools, rejected fears over safety and said it was the most disadvantaged who were losing out from schools being closed.

“Sometimes scaremongering, making people fear, is really unfair and not a welcome pressure to be placed on families, children and teachers alike,” he told MPs.

Mr Williamson said that pupils, like teachers, would be a priority for testing if they or their families showed symptoms.

The Liberal Democrats’ education spokeswoman, Layla Moran, challenged the education secretary to publish the scientific evidence on which the return to school was based.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Gavin Williamson said disadvantaged pupils were the most likely to suffer from a long time out of school

But the Department for Education’s chief scientific adviser, Osama Rahman, appearing before the Science and Technology Committee, said decisions around opening schools, such as which year groups went back first, had not been taken by the department.

Asked whether he had assessed the safety guidance given to schools and how it might be implemented, the DFE’s scientific adviser told MPs: “I haven’t.”

As such he was unable to say what evidence was behind the decision to reopen schools – or to say how many under-18s had died from the virus.

And Mr Rahman told MPs there was only “low confidence” in evidence suggesting that children transmit Covid-19 any less than adults.

“As a former teacher listening to this I don’t think the profession is going to be at all satisfied by what they are hearing at the moment,” said Scottish National Party MP Carol Monaghan.

Patrick Roach, leader of the Nasuwt teachers’ union, said the DFE adviser’s comments were “truly shocking and disturbing”.

The Department for Education later circulated a letter from Mr Rahman in which he said he had been “closely involved” in advising on reopening schools – and that he had “full confidence in in the plan to reopen education institutions for all the reasons set out by the government”.

In their joint statement, nine unions, including the National Education Union and the National Association of Head Teachers, rejected the plans for a phased return of primary school pupils after half term – saying it was still too early to be safe.

The unions called for a delay until a “full roll-out of a national test and trace scheme” was in place and there were extra resources for cleaning, protective equipment and risk assessments.

The joint statement said that “classrooms of four and five-year olds could become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread”.

“We call on the government to step back from the 1st June and work with us to create the conditions for a safe return to schools.”

But Mr Williamson told MPs that opening schools was the “responsible” course of action, now the virus was “past the peak” and that safety was uppermost in how it was being planned.

“The best place for children to be educated and to learn is in school,” he said, particularly for the disadvantaged who would be most likely to fall further behind.

Instead of a fixed date for a return, Labour’s shadow education secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, argued that schools should reopen only when there was clear evidence it was safe.

“The guidance provided so far does not yet provide the clear assurances over safety that are needed,” she told MPs.

She said that families were still worried about the implications of pupils going back to school, such as for relatives who might have illnesses.

In Wales, the First Minister Mark Drakeford has said schools would not open on 1 June.

In Scotland, it is not expected that schools will re-open before the summer holidays.

In Northern Ireland, Education Minister Peter Weir has spoken of a possible phased return of schools in September.

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