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Return to school: ‘We’ll support closures if there aren’t enough teachers to reopen’ says Cambridgeshire County Council

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Schools in Cambridgeshire have been asked to assess whether they have enough staff to reopen after unions warned teachers it was not safe to return to classrooms amid spiralling Covid-19 infection rates.

Primary schools have reopened today (Monday) in the county, and across most areas of the country, although some are holding inset days. Secondary schools will have a phased return, with all pupils back on January 18.

Primary schools are reopening on Monday January 4 in most parts of the country.
Primary schools are reopening on Monday January 4 in most parts of the country.

But parents, teachers, unions and some politicians have expressed concern that the return of school will speed up the spread of the new variant of Covid-19, which is more easily transmissible.

Only primary schools in London and some parts of the South East have been told by the government to stay closed due to the high infection rates.

Those in Cambridgeshire, despite the county falling in Tier 4, have been told to reopen.

Cambridgeshire County Council, the local education authority, clarified its position today, stating that it believed a “blanket closure” of schools would not be the right response, given national guidance.

But it has asked schools to assess whether they have sufficient staff to offer education in school.

Those who decide they cannot “operate safely” will be “fully supported to make decisions over either partial closure or full closure of the school”, the council said.

It added: “Remote learning will be offered to any pupil whose bubble or school is closed. This will be reviewed on a daily basis in line with the school’s individual risk assessment.”

And the council confirmed that it would seek government support to close schools if there were significant spikes in Covid-19 infections in a particular area.

“The current Covid-19 situation will be monitored on a bi-weekly basis, at ward and school catchment area,” the council said. “If we determine that there is a high and increasing trend in infection levels equivalent to that in other areas where there has been national direction to close schools, we will seek support from the Department for Education to close the school to all but vulnerable and key worker children.

“This information will be shared with schools to inform their risk assessments.”

Covid-19 patients in hospitals in England. Graphic: PA (43805160)
Covid-19 patients in hospitals in England. Graphic: PA (43805160)

And it revealed: “The county council wrote to the regional school commissioner on December 31 to discuss the approach to areas where data around infections suggests there are concerns. A meeting will be taking place this week to discuss the situation in Cambridgeshire.”

Cambridge’s infection rate for the week to December 29 rose to 416.7 cases per 100,000 people - above the national average - with 520 cases confirmed, up 185 week-on-week (55.2 per cent).

South Cambridgeshire recorded an infection rate of 389.1 per 100,000, narrowly below the national average. There were 619 cases in the district, up 208 (50.6 per cent) on the previous week, with particular hotspots in Longstanton, Swavesey and Oakington (68 cases, up 46 on the previous week), Cambourne (72 cases, up 49), Little Shelford, Foxton and Haslingfield (43 cases, up 29), Fulbourn and Teversham (37 cases, up 19), Milton, Fen Ditton and Quy (34 cases, up 15) and Great Shelford and Stapleford (34 cases, up 15).

East Cambridgeshire’s infection rate for the week to December 29 was 314 cases per 100,000 people, with 314 cases recorded, up 129 cases (69.7 per cent). Hotspots include North Ely (61 cases, up 41), Littleport (42 cases, up 19), Swaffham and Bottisham, with 29 cases (up 12) and Burwell with 29 cases (up one).

Seeking to reassure parents, and encourage them to continue to observe safety measures when dropping off and picking up pupils, the council added: “The preventative measures that educational establishments have put in place have been hugely effective in managing Covid-19 cases and staff have worked relentlessly.

“The support of parents has also been crucial and they have worked closely with schools to both reduce the spread of the virus and ensure their children are able to continue with their education.

“If parents are concerned about the safety of their child returning to their education setting, please speak to school/college leaders for further advice on the precautions they are taking. For school age pupils up to the end of year 11, attendance remains compulsory.”

Decisions on whether fines are issued to parents who do not send children to school typically rest with individual headteachers.

The council’s advice relates to schools under its jurisdiction as local education authority.

Many secondary schools in the Cambridge region are part of academy trusts, however, and are therefore autonomous of the local authority..

However, the council said: “This advice has been issued to them and it will be for individual academy trusts to decide their position in relation to reopening.”

The council clarified its position following a joint statement from the GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, Unison and Unite unions, which said there was a “serious risk” of staff falling ill while the rate of infection is so high.

Heath Secretary Matt Hancock leaves Millbank in Westminster. Picture: PA (43805166)
Heath Secretary Matt Hancock leaves Millbank in Westminster. Picture: PA (43805166)

“The government’s chaotic handling of the opening of schools has caused confusion for teachers, school staff and parents alike,” they said.

“Bringing all pupils back into classrooms while the rate of infection is so high is exposing education sector workers to serious risk of ill-health and could fuel the pandemic.”

A Cambridge Independent poll showed 73 per cent of respondents were in favour of all schools working remotely at the start of term.

But this morning, health secretary Matt Hancock insisted it was safe for primary schools to reopen in all but these worst-hit areas of England following the Christmas break.

He said Sky News teachers are at no greater risk of contracting the disease than the rest of the population.

“There is clear public health advice behind the position that we have taken and that is what people should follow because, of course, education is very important as well, especially for people’s long-term health,” he said.

But with the latest data showing a 33 per cent rise in the number of confirmed coronavirus patients in hospital in England between Christmas Day and January 2, Mr Hancock warned there would be “some very difficult weeks” to come.

Asked about the prospect of another national lockdown, he accepted that the current tiered restrictions were proving insufficient to control the spread of the disease.

He told Sky News: “We don’t rule anything out, and we’ve shown repeatedly that we will look at the public health advice and we will take the public health advice in terms of what is needed to control the spread of the disease.

“This new variant is much easier to catch, it is much more transmissible, and we’re now seeing the effect of that in lots of different parts of the country, unfortunately.

“And it means that, whereas the old Tier 3 was able to contain the old variant, that is proving increasingly difficult in all parts of the country.”

Brian Pinker becomes the first person to receive the Oxford vaccine outside clinical trials. Picture: Steve Parsons/PA (43805162)
Brian Pinker becomes the first person to receive the Oxford vaccine outside clinical trials. Picture: Steve Parsons/PA (43805162)

Meanwhile, dialysis patient Brian Pinker became the first to receive the newly-approved Covid-19 vaccine from Oxford University and AstraZeneca when he received his jab - the first of two - at 7.30am on Monday from nurse Sam Foster at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust’s Churchill Hospital.

Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director of NHS England, described the rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine as “another turning point in our way out of this pandemic”.

He said it followed months of preparation by the NHS for what will be “the biggest vaccination programme in our history”.

Read more

Growing pressure on government to delay return of primary schools as union tells teachers it is unsafe to return

Covid-19 in Cambridgeshire 2021: Cases, infection rates and deaths for every area as variant leads to record numbers

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