Government to hold ‘crunch meeting’ on schools as experts call for closures

27 December 2020, 12:10 | Updated: 27 December 2020, 13:02

The government have said plans to return students to schools are "under constant review".
The government have said plans to return students to schools are "under constant review". Picture: PA

By Joe Cook

Government officials are reportedly set to meet on Monday “to hold a crunch meeting” on whether secondary schools should open as planned in January.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is reportedly “trying to keep” schools open, but is facing “an enormous battle” against “lockdowners” in the government, sources told the Daily Telegraph.

While the government has made keeping children in school a priority, the new, more infectious, variant of Covid-19 has threatened to throw these plans up in the air.

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On Monday Mr Williamson wrote that the government has "no plans for schools to close", however a government spokesperson today told LBC their approach is "under constant review".

If schools are closed there is likely to be a strong pushback from Conservative backbenchers, with the chair of the Education Select Committee telling LBC any "blanket closure" should be voted on by MPs.

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Students are currently expected to return in a staggered way in January. While primary schools and those with exams will start term as usual, the slowed return for other students has been set up to allow the testing of students.

The armed forces will be used to support the testing program, with face-to-face learning expected to restart for all in England by 11 January.

However, on Monday, the Prime Minister refused to guarantee that schools in England will reopen after Christmas, saying "we want, if we possibly can, to get schools back in a staggered way at the beginning of January" but "the commonsensical thing to do is to follow the path of the epidemic".

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Gavin Williamson’s “battle” in government follows calls from some public health experts for schools to be closed, as Covid cases surge across the country.d

Responding to the reports a government spokesperson told LBC: “We want all pupils to return in January as school is the best place for their development and mental health, but as the Prime Minister has said, it is right that we follow the path of the pandemic and keep our approach under constant review.

“Our huge expansion of rapid testing will support secondary schools and colleges to stay open to all pupils and reduce the risk of transmission within local communities.”

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Conservative MP and Chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, told LBC: “We need to keep our schools open, we need to keep our children learning.

“Our kids have suffered enormously over the last six to nine months. Millions of them did hardly any learning at all and we face the risk of an epidemic of educational poverty.

“Previously the scientists, the University College London, said the school closures had a marginal effect on the rate of transmission. So I would like to know what has changed and why we are even considering closing schools yet again."

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However, experts say data indicates the new variant may be able to better spread among youngsters than other strains, although analysis is still ongoing.

A new paper from the London School of Health and Tropical Medicine and Imperial College London has also warned Tier 4 restrictions are unlikely to control the new strain of the virus without schools and universities also closing.

The preliminary paper, which has not yet been peer reviewed, suggests lockdown restrictions “similar to national lockdown implemented in England in November 2020 are unlikely to reduce the effective reproduction number Rt to less than 1, unless primary schools, secondary schools, and universities are also closed”.

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Mr Halfon added that if the government decide to close the schools it should be voted on.

"We have to have a national conversation as a country: do we value our children, are we going to destroy their life chances, are we going to potentially create an epidemic of education poverty... or are we just going to shut the schools?"

The chair of the Education Select Committee is also calling for schools and the government to "track the attainment of every single child that is sent home...and then make the decision about exams".

He told LBC: "If the schools are closed in January, it is clear that the government will have to go back on their decision and they will probably be centre assessed grades across the board.”

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The National Education Union has called for the government to vaccinate teachers ahead of the return to in person teaching.

In a letter to the prime minister, Joint General Secretaries Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, wrote: “We believe that you should use that two-week period to begin to vaccinate education staff, alongside NHS and care staff.

“Part of the disruption to education, and the extra stress on school leaders, is caused both by the relatively high levels of staff absence due to the virus and self-isolation and by the fear that vulnerable staff have about working without PPE or social distancing.”

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There are reports that the government may be planning to follow these demands from the NEU, however they have not been confirmed by the government.

The current prioritisation schedule has teachers alongside first responders, transport workers and the military as priority groups in the second phase of the vaccine rollout.

Discussions on the opening of schools are also ongoing amongst the devolved governments. In Scotland the start of the new school term has been delayed to January 11, with “at least” the first week of studies online.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Tuesday: "Our intention is that schools will get back to normal from January 18 - but we will require to keep this under review."

Welsh secondary schools are also set to return in full by 18 January.

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University students are also hoping to return in the spring term, with “rapid turnaround tests” rolled out to weed out asymptomatic cases.

In an effort to avoid the chaos seen in September, the government has recommended the return of universities should be staggered over 5 weeks to “minimise transmission risks from the mass movement of students”.