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Coronavirus: safety fears raised over Cambridgeshire schools opening

Concerns have been raised that schools will struggle to reopen safely next month if the government lifts some of the lockdown restrictions.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to make an announcement on Sunday unveiling plans to relax some aspects of the lockdown, prompting speculation that the government could send children back to school as early as June 1.

However, Cambridgeshire’s director of education, a regional teaching union representative and a secondary school headteacher have all expressed concerns to the Cambridge Independent about how reopening schools could be achieved without spreading the coronavirus.

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

The county council’s director of education, Jonathan Lewis, said: “A lot of the staff are on the shielding list and have to self-isolate for 12 weeks, so we wouldn’t have full coverage of staff if schools reopened on June 1. That means, in some cases, we simply will not be able to open fully because there aren’t the staff. There is a significant proportion of our staff in that group.

“If an individual chooses to come into school that’s a different situation, but there is no expectation that someone on the shielding list should come into school.

“The government closed schools on March 20 unilaterally through their new powers [under the Coronavirus Act] and they can do it again. But if a school can’t run because they haven’t got staff, it can’t. Simple as that.”

He added that if social distancing measures remain in place for schools, and pupils have to stay two metres apart, there will only be room for about 10 children per classroom.

“We don’t have schools with stacks of spare rooms, particularly in Cambridge, so it’s going to be very difficult to do that. It probably means you can’t have everyone back.

“But they may lift all the measures and say social distancing no longer applies in schools, in which case it can be 30 children per class. We will fall in line with the government guidance, which is obviously backed by the scientific knowledge.”

As there is no government requirement for school staff to be given any PPE, the county council will not be providing any, he added.

He admitted some parents may not feel it is safe to send their children back, especially if a member of their family is shielding.

Niamh Sweeney, representative for the NEU and teacher at Long Road (34350727)
Niamh Sweeney, representative for the NEU and teacher at Long Road (34350727)

"We have fed into the department for education our concerns and hope there is a degree of flexibility to the end of this term," he said.

The British Irish Group of Teacher Unions has written to the education ministers warning of a risk of creating a spike in the transmission of the coronavirus by opening schools to soon.

The letter demands test and trace measures be operational before schools re-open as well as changes to allow social distancing in schools, strong hygiene routines and appropriate PPE for staff.

Long Road teacher Niamh Sweeney is the Executive Member Eastern Region for the National Education Union.

She said it would be unfair for some parts of the workforce to be told to carry on social distancing whilst teachers and students were not.

“We are not prepared to be an experiment for the rest of society,” she said. “Because when you talk about children maybe being asymptomatic or not passing it onto each other, that's all well and good. But everyone is forgetting the number of adults who will be in those buildings at the same time.

“There is an idea about teachers being selfish and not wanting to go back to work but my work would be so much easier in the classroom than trying to work remotely. It just has to be safe.”

Chris Tooley, The Netherhall School. Picture: Keith Heppell. (34350697)
Chris Tooley, The Netherhall School. Picture: Keith Heppell. (34350697)

Headteacher of Netherhall School, Chris Tooley, said: “People who work in schools do so because of their deep commitment to young people and we are used to the notion of working in an environment where we come into contact with large numbers of people and where there are the potential infections of all types can be spread. However, there is understandable anxiety that any opening is done in a way which protects our staff, students and their families. The key is that the level of opening needs to be at a time when scientific advice is that this is safe and when doing so would enable the offer of a provision of higher quality than the current arrangements.

"All schools will have members of staff who fall within the vulnerable categories, who are pregnant or who are in families which are shielding. As such, schools are unlikely to be fully staffed until September at the earliest. Any partial opening will therefore need to be gradual and reflective of each school’s capacity. Regular Covid-19 testing is one option to provide staff confidence that they are fit to work and to give parents confidence that students are being sent into a safe environment. It would be very welcome if a clear process was outlined for all schools for how this could happen."

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