Teachers' unions call on government to 'step back' on reopening schools

13 May 2020, 13:12

Children could return to school by June 1
Children could return to school by June 1. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

The UK's leading education unions have called on the government to "step back" from its proposed plan to start reopening schools in England from 1 June.

In a joint statement, the AEP, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, NSEAD, Prospect, Unison and Unite unions said: "We all want schools to reopen, but that should only happen when it is safe to do so."

It follows the Prime Minister's announcement on Sunday that the rate of infection remains too high to allow the reopening of schools for all pupils yet.

But that a phased return may begin in Step Two of the lockdown release plan, which could begin by June 1.

Schools were closed on March 20 to the majority of children, with only vulnerable children and the children of key workers remaining in lessons.

Gavin Williams discussed the plans in parliament
Gavin Williams discussed the plans in parliament. Picture: PA

The statement continued: "The Government is showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools, and outwards from schools to parents, siblings and relatives, and to the wider community.

"Uniquely, it appears, school staff will not be protected by social distancing rules. Fifteen children in a class, combined with their very young age, means that classrooms of 4 and 5-year-olds could become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread.

"While we know that children generally have mild symptoms, we do not know enough about whether they can transmit the disease to adults. We do not think that the Government should be posing this level of risk to our society.

"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 based on the principles and tests we have set out."

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The government has said pupils will return to class in smaller groups than usual but aims to give young students and those moving to secondary school in September more time with teachers.

Advice calls for schools to stagger lunch and break times, as well as drop-off and pick-up times, to reduce the number of pupils moving around.

However, earlier this week Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said there are a number of "difficulties" with the Government's guidance on safely reopening schools by June 1.

He told MPs that the school leaders' union was not consulted on specific plans, announced in recent days, to admit pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 from June 1.

Mr Whiteman said it is hardest to maintain social distancing, as well as good hygiene levels, with the younger year groups.

Addressing a virtual Education Select Committee, Mr Whiteman added: "If social distancing is as we understand it now - the two metre rule to be applied in schools - there are very many schools that are saying it is simply impossible to achieve."

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On Wednesday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson acknowledged allowing pupils to return to school will be "challenging".

He added: "We continue to follow the best medical and scientific advice and believe that this phased return is the most sensible course of action to take.

"I know that this will be challenging but I know that nursery, school and college staff will do everything in their power to start welcoming our children back to continue their education."

Speaking in parliament, he also said all teachers and school pupils will be able to be tested for Covid-19 if they develop symptoms when they return to schools.

Answering an urgent Commons question from Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Layla Moran, Mr Williamson said: "On Monday my department published initial guidance for settings on how to begin to prepare and we'll work with the sector leaders to develop this further in the coming weeks.

"This guidance sets out protective measures to minimise the risk of infection, including restricting class sizes and limiting mixing between groups.

"Crucially all children and staff will have access to testing if they develop symptoms of coronavirus.

"This will enable a track-and-trace approach to be taken to any confirmed cases."