Schools in England should not reopen before September, unions warn

Schools in England should not reopen before September and the government must not force parents to send children back if they object, two leading unions have warned the education secretary.

As the prime minister prepares to outline plans for an easing of the Covid-19 lockdown, speculation has mounted that schools will reopen from as early as 1 June, first to 10- and 11-year-olds in year six, followed by other primary year groups and then for those mid-GCSE and on A-level courses.

But with the death toll from the virus still mounting and continuing anxiety among parents, Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, urged the government to rule out reopening before the start of the next academic year.

What are the UK government’s ‘five tests’ for ending lockdown restrictions?

The UK government has said that these five tests have to be met before they will consider easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions:

  • The NHS has sufficient capacity to provide critical care and specialist treatment right across the UK
  • A sustained and consistent fall in daily deaths from Coronavirus
  • Reliable data to show that the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels across the board
  • Operational challenges including testing and personal protective equipement (PPE) are in hand with supply able to meet future demand
  • Confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelms the NHS

The union intervention came as the Welsh government declared that its schools would not reopen on 1 June, regardless of decisions in England. Earlier this week, the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, also said schools in Scotland may not return until the end of summer.

Kirsty Williams, the education minister for Wales, said: “As you’ll know, there is a lot of speculation about what may or may not be announced regarding schools in England this weekend. The situation for schools in Wales will not change on 1 June. You have my guarantee that we will give everyone time to plan ahead of a next phase starting.”

In a letter to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, seen by the Guardian, Roach warned that any change to the current restrictions on the opening of schools would be “highly premature and extremely damaging”, given the public health emergency.

“With the highest Covid-19 mortality rates in Europe, it is clear that the government must continue to adopt an extremely cautious approach which does not contribute to further deaths and a further intensive wave of spread of the virus in the UK,” he said.

“In view of the continued and pressing public health challenges and the considerable task that will be required to ensure that every school is ready to admit increased numbers of children and adults into safe learning and working environments, the NASUWT urges the government to end speculation on the reopening of schools beyond the current restrictions prior to September 2020.”

Schools in England have been closed since 20 March to all but the children of critical workers and those classed as vulnerable. Pupils have been attending in tiny numbers, with the bulk of learning taking place at home and online.

With parent surveys suggesting widespread nervousness about sending children back, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) warned that parents should not be compelled to do so and schools should not be asked to fine parents for their child’s non-attendance.

“It’s very clear that parents are very nervous about sending their children back to school,” said Paul Whiteman, the NAHT general secretary. “I would not like to see a situation where schools are instructed to issue fines for families who do not feel able to send their children to school even if the government gives them the all clear.”

A survey of over 250,000 parents has found that 90% of those who took part did not want to see their children return to school immediately after the government ends lockdown. One in 10 who responded to the Parentkind online survey said they would be happy to wait until staff and pupils have been vaccinated, even if this takes up to 18 months.

When asked when they would be happy for their child to return to school, a quarter of parents said they would be happy with a September return date, but that they would like this to be confirmed now; 23% and 18% respectively said they would be happy only when government or school leaders say it is safe to do so, and only 10% said they would be happy with a return to school as soon as lockdown ends.

Whiteman said: “If we open schools and no one arrives, it seems a bit of a pointless exercise. Children are precious to parents. They won’t want to be taking any risks with their health and future. Their level of confidence in [coming back to school] is a very serious matter.”

Meanwhile, a petition by the National Education Union demanding schools reopen only when it is safe to do so has now attracted 350,000 signatures from parents, teachers, heads, support staff, doctors and health workers.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Gavin Williamson has been clear that schools will not reopen until the scientific advice indicates that it is safe to do so and the five tests set out by government to beat this virus have been met.

“Parents of pupils not currently in school due to closures will not be fined, and there are no immediate plans for this to change when schools begin to reopen.”

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