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The seven reasons why parents group is protesting in Cambridge about June 1 return of primary schools

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A protest against the reopening of primary schools to some pupils from June 1 was held today outside Shire Hall in Cambridge.

The socially distanced lobbying event was aimed at the government and Cambridgeshire County Council - the local education authority, which has stressed it is acting on government guidance.

Protesters against the reopening of primary schools on June 1 outside Shire Hall in Cambridge (35457782)
Protesters against the reopening of primary schools on June 1 outside Shire Hall in Cambridge (35457782)

The event was organised by the Cambs Parents & Carers Covid-19 Forum, which argues that June 1 is too soon for the reopening of schools.

Its members warn the move will put the NHS, key workers and the wider population at risk of the coronavirus - particularly those from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, who are disproportionately affected, along with lower income families.

The protest, which started at noon at the county council’s headquarters off Castle Hill, also highlighted concerns over testing regimes, and the challenges for schools in preparing for the return of Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils on Monday.

The government has confirmed that those parents who choose not to send their children back will not face fines. It will publish updated scientific guidance today, which will inform the final decision on the reopening of schools next week.

Today’s activity was part of a national day of action co-ordinated by a pressure group called Health Worker Covid Activists - People Before Profits, who described themselves as a ‘group of health workers who have concerns about the inadequate government response to the coronavirus crisis’.

Protesters against the reopening of primary schools on June 1 outside Shire Hall in Cambridge (35457773)
Protesters against the reopening of primary schools on June 1 outside Shire Hall in Cambridge (35457773)

The organisers, who wore face masks, stood apart and held banners saying ‘No going back until it’s safe’, said: “This protest is not aimed at other parents or school staff. We understand fully that parents, carers and school staff have been put in a very difficult position.

“The protest is directed at the county council and the government. We believe that government has been contradictory, complacent and incompetent in its handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

“Seeking to widen the opening of schools in the proposed way has caused serious stress to schools and parents. It is too soon and poses more problems than it answers.

“The government should call off its plans and seek a local consultative approach to plan education in the longer term interests of the whole community.

“We do not believe that a robust public health strategy is in place at a local level and are calling on the county to delay to give time to reduce the level of infections in the local population and put in place localised testing, tracking and tracing procedures.”

The organisers point to advice from the Independent SAGE committee - separate to the government’s own scientific advisory group - which argued last week that June 1 is too soon for the return of pupils.

The group called for local ‘test, track, and isolate’ systems to be in place. The Department of Health and Social Care only unveiled the system last night (Wednesday, May 27). The system enables anyone with symptoms to access a test, requires that they isolate and then share those who they have been in contact with so that the service can get in touch with them, and similarly advise them to take a test and isolate.

Protesters against the reopening of primary schools on June 1 outside Shire Hall in Cambridge (35457737)
Protesters against the reopening of primary schools on June 1 outside Shire Hall in Cambridge (35457737)

Talking last week before the system was unveiled, Sir David King, the former government chief scientist who chairs the independent SAGE group, said: “It is clear from the evidence we have collected that June 1 is simply too early to go back. By going ahead with this dangerous decision, the government is further risking the health of our communities and the likelihood of a second spike.

“However we also recognise that the decision of when to reopen our schools is a careful balance and that it is vital for our young people to get back into the classroom as soon as it is safe to do so. The current climate is likely to disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged in society; therefore it is vital that the government also considers innovative ways to help those who need it most.”

The group points to seven reasons why they believe that June 1 is too early to reopen schools. They say:

  • Children get and transmit Covid-19 - the groups says although the risk of serious illness or death is lower among children, they can be infected and transmit the virus to others. The group says: “They are more likely to be asymptomatic but this poses difficulties in identifying and containing community outbreaks quickly.”
  • The virus is still prevealent in the population. “There are still thousands of new cases in the UK every week,” says the group. “Many countries in the world with a fraction of the cases have kept schools closed. Even the best planned schools can not mitigate the level of virus in the community.”
  • They have no confidence in community testing. The protesters say: “The government has struggled to reach testing targets. Where testing is happening it has a low level of reliability. Local communities need access to quick and reliable testing if schools are to open safely. Testing children is even more difficult and unpleasant.”
  • There is no evidence that a robust tracking and isolation system is in place.
  • The risk of being badly affected by the coronavirus is not equal, with black, Asian and minority ethnic communities amd lower income families disproportionately affected. “There are 800,000 young carers in the UK, many of whom are protesting vulnerable adults,” says the group. “Other children will have loved ones at home with underlying health issues. The government needs to allocate resources to ensure everyone is safe and supported.”
  • There is a risk to the NHS and key workers and vulnerable children’s scheme. “Schools are currently open on the basis of supporting these children. Bringing more students into school may risk infecting the families of those performing vital services,” say the protesters.
  • “Schools are not ready - most schools seem to be working hard to plan for an eventual return. But schools have been under-funded and many do not have the resources or space to implement the limited numbers in the government’s plans,” says the group.

In response, Jonathan Lewis, service director for education at Cambridgeshire County Council and Peterborough City Council, told the Cambridge Independent: “Our stance remains the same as it has been throughout this crisis – we are following guidance from central government and we have no government evidence to say it is unsafe to open schools or close them – updated guidance is expected today.

Cambridgeshire County Council’s director of education, Jonathan Lewis
Cambridgeshire County Council’s director of education, Jonathan Lewis

“We will only reopen our schools once we have seen sufficient scientific evidence that proves it is safe for us to do so, and this view is shared by our local authority colleagues across the Eastern region.

“Parents have the option about whether to send their children or not. We do not have a mandate, and we will not penalise any parent who don’t send their children back in this academic year. Schools will continue to support pupils at home.

“If and when our schools do re-open, measures will be in place to ensure they are safe, with steps taken and adjustments made to ensure social distancing amongst children and staff. We are also fully engaging in the roll out of test and tracing.

“Most of our schools have remained open throughout the lockdown period for vulnerable children and those of key workers. In fact, across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough our levels of attendance have consistently been above the national average.

“We want to see our children returning to school, and hopefully the guidance from government today will provide evidence that categorically proves it is the right time to do so.”

Cllr Simon Bywater. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Simon Bywater. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cllr Simon Bywater, chair of Cambridgeshire County Council’s children and young peoples committee, added: “I fully appreciate this is a difficult time for parents, and for many it may feel like it is still too early to send your children back. I want to assure you that my council and education colleagues continue to place the safety of our children, their families and school staff first.

“I know that when they do announce the re-opening of our schools, the decision will have been made following a meticulous study of the evidence and collaborative discussions with our school leaders.”

Other primary school year groups are expected to return later in June, although no firm timetable has been agreed.

Secondary schools, meanwhile, are due to return for Year 10 and Year 12 students from June 15.

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