Primary, Year 11 and Year 13 pupils will return to schools next week despite Covid fears

28 December 2020, 09:30 | Updated: 28 December 2020, 15:57

File photo: Pupils on the first day back to school at Charles Dickens Primary School in London
File photo: Pupils on the first day back to school at Charles Dickens Primary School in London. Picture: PA

By Megan White

Primary school, Year 11 and Year 13 students will return to classrooms on January 4 despite calls from some public health experts for schools to stay closed amid a surge in Covid cases.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove confirmed on Monday that plans for many pupils to return would go ahead, with only Years 7 to 10 and Year 12 continuing remote learning.

But he did admit that the Government would "always keep things under review."

Read more: Boxing Day 'busiest ever for London paramedics' as Covid patients near April peak

His comments came ahead of a "crunch meeting" with Government officials to discuss whether schools should be kept open in the event of further, stronger lockdowns.

Mr Gove told Sky News: "Our plan is that primary schools will go back but with secondary schools it will be the case that next week only children in Year 11 and Year 13 - those who are doing their GCSEs, their BTECs, their A-levels - those will go back.

"And also children of key workers and children who are vulnerable and need the support and care that schools that can provide.

"Other children in secondary schools won't go back for a week after that."

But he added: "We always keep things under review but teachers and headteachers have been working incredibly hard over the Christmas period, since schools broke up, in order to prepare for a new testing regime - community testing in order to make sure that children and all of us are safer.

"So we do keep things under review but that is the plan."

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT wrote to the Education Secretary on Monday demanding further action on school safety.

The letter calls for Gavin Williamson to allow schools to move to remote learning for all pupils, except those deemed to be vulnerable or the children of key workers, in the highest tier areas.

"Delaying the return of pupils to schools and colleges at the start of the spring term will also enable all school and college employers to undertake and consult as required on new risk assessments and ensure that they can be compliant with any new measures or requirements contained in any forthcoming national guidance," it says.

The union is also asking the Government to publish new safety guidance in light of the new Covid-19 variant, introduce mandatory face coverings within schools and give staff priority access to the vaccine.

The National Education Union has also 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.”

Experts say data indicates the new variant of the virus 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."

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.

Labour's shadow education secretary Kate Green said: "Labour has been clear that keeping pupils learning should be a national priority, but a litany of Government failures, from a lack of funding for safety measures through to the delayed and chaotic announcement of mass testing, is putting young people's education at risk.

"It is time for the Prime Minister to get a grip on the situation and show some leadership.

"The country needs to hear from him today, alongside the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, about the evidence on the spread of the virus, how he plans to minimise disruption to education and a clear strategy for schools and colleges that commands the support of parents, pupils and staff."

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."

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?"

He 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.”