Will schools in Tier 4 reopen in January? Teaching union calls for delay to start of spring term
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A teaching union has called for a delay to the reopening of schools in January due to the rapid rise in Covid-19 cases after a Cabinet minister said the government hopes to push ahead with its new year plan.
Students in exam years, and all primary school children, were due to go back to class as normal in January, while other secondary students will have a week of remote learning to help headteachers roll out the mass testing of pupils and staff.
But with the new variant of Covid-19 leading to a dramatic increase in cases, and nearly half the country - including Cambridgeshire - living under Tier 4 restrictions, speculation is growing that there may be a further delay imposed.
Officials from Downing Street and the Department for Education discussed the issue on Monday and an update is expected from education secretary Gavin Williamson on Wednesday (December 30).
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, wrote to the education secretary demanding further action on school safety.
He called 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,” his letter 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.
It came after Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said the government hoped the staggered reopening of schools in England would go ahead in the new year as planned.
Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on December 28, Mr Gove said ministers were confident primary school pupils and Year 11 and Year 13 pupils in England would be able to return in the first week of January, with the rest going back later in the month.
“It is our intention to make sure we can get children back to school as early as possible,” he said. “We are talking to teachers and headteachers in order to make sure we can deliver effectively. But we all know that there are trade-offs.
“As a country we have decided – and I think this is the right thing to do – that we prioritise children returning to school.
“But we have a new strain and it is also the case that we have also had, albeit in a very limited way, Christmas mixing, so we do have to remain vigilant.
“We are confident that we will be able to get schools back in good order. Our plan and our timetable is there, and we are working with teachers to deliver it.”
He told Sky News: “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.”
Scientists have suggested that the mutated coronavirus variant could more easily infect children.
The National Education Union has previously said the government should allow schools to move classes online for most pupils for a fortnight in January to allow Covid-19 cases to fall.
Cambridge’s Labour MP Daniel Zeichner told the Cambridge Independent that a lack of clarity from the government was impacting schools and parents.
“What parents, teachers and pupils crave is some certainty and honesty from this government. Keeping schools open is important for children’s education and wellbeing, and working parents need to be able to make plans. But on exams, school meals, cash for cleaning schools, Covid testing plans and support for remote learning for children without the internet, the government has been found wanting. Now once again we are faced with ineptitude. It is time for the Prime Minister to get a grip on the situation and show some leadership,” he said.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the arguments for reopening schools in January were “very finely balanced”.
“I think the next few weeks going into January are going to be extremely difficult across the whole country,” Sir Jeremy, director of the Wellcome Trust, told Today.
“Certainly my own view is that schools opening is an absolute priority. But society – and eventually this is a political decision – will have to balance keeping schools open, if that is possible, with therefore closing down other parts of society.
“It is going to be a trade-off between one or other. You cannot have everything. You cannot have the whole of society opening, and schools opening and further education and universities, and keep R below 1 with this variant.”
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.”