Unions have claimed that a full reopening of schools in England could put teachers at “serious risk” of falling ill with coronavirus and could “fuel” the pandemic.
Six unions are urging the government to “pause” the return of pupils to classrooms until the they can guarantee their safety.
“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,” they said in a statement.
The NAHT school leaders’ union, NEU, NASUWT, GMB, Unison and Unite want to sit down with the prime minister to “discuss a joint approach” on how learning should continue while the new COVID-19 variant spreads rapidly throughout the country.
But echoing his health secretary Matt Hancock, Boris Johnson insisted “schools are safe” and that the “risk to teachers is no greater than it is to people in any other line of work”.
Meanwhile parents in several Tier 4 areas were confused today as to why their children are being made to return to primary school – when those in London and the South East are shut until later this month due to high case rates.
Parents at a primary in Yardley, Birmingham, told Sky News correspondent Becky Johnson this morning they have “serious reservations” about the school being open.
Referring to primary schools being closed in London, which is in the same tier as Birmingham, one said: “People were not understanding the difference between the two cities.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The government’s own advice from SAGE makes it clear that opening schools to all pupils now risks increasing the infection rate. That’s in no one’s interest.
“Instead of creating chaos for parents and exposing workers to risks, the prime minister should be talking to trade unions about what steps are needed to make sure all schools are COVID-secure.”
Primary schools in the Tier 4 areas hardest hit by the new coronavirus variant are due to open on 18 January.
Pupils sitting GCSE and A-Level exams this year are due to go back on 11 January, with the rest of secondary school year groups returning on 18 January.
Mass testing is being rolled out at schools that are still closed to prepare for students’ return.
But many local councils have defied the government’s rules, saying they will support any primary school who does not feel safe to open this week.
Brighton and Hove City Council has said primary school students should not return until 18 January, except for vulnerable children and those whose parents are key workers.
Council leaders in Wolverhampton, Norfolk, Slough, Manchester, County Durham, Lancashire, Birmingham and Gateshead have also said they are happy for schools to stay closed if the headteacher thinks they are not safe.
Leader of Kent County Council Roger Gough has asked Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to keep all the county’s primary schools closed, saying it is “very hard to justify” having some open while others were closed.
Primary school pupils in Thanet, Canterbury, Dover and Folkestone and Hythe were expected to return on Monday while students in the county’s other districts will learn remotely for two weeks.
Speaking at a London hospital rolling out the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for the first time today, Boris Johnson said the government is “doing everything we can to protect teachers”.
But he said the “issue is not the safety of the schools”, rather that the “anxiety of the government is any activity” where households mix indoors and spread the disease – including schools.
However, Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the government, told Sky News on Monday that ministers should “look very carefully” at the situation surrounding education.
“The impact on teachers and other workers in the schools and on parents [of catching the virus] is bad. It causes an impact in the spreading rate of the disease,” he said.
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