Schools reopening next week 'not acceptable and not safe'

The Government has been accused of failing to make schools safe enough as ministers are urged to delay sending pupils back next week.

Education chiefs, scientists and ministers have warned that reopening schools could cause infection rates to spiral, with the Covid-19 mutant variants said to be more transmissible among young people. The largest teachers’ union, NASUWT, yesterday urged the education secretary to delay the reopening by two weeks.

Ministers have reportedly been advised by the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) that it would be impossible to keep the R rate below 1 if schools reopen this month.

Cabinet office minister Michael Gove yesterday confirmed the staggered reopening of schools will go ahead, with primary school pupils, GCSE and A-level students, and the children of key workers returning first from January 4.

Other secondary school pupils will go back a week later and will start the term online, to allow heads to roll out mass testing among children and staff.

But leading social scientist, Dr Zubaida Haque, said the Government wasn’t doing enough to make classrooms Covid-safe, despite the spike in cases and deaths causing the NHS to buckle under the pressure.

Dr Haque, former deputy director of race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, said: ‘The key question is are schools safe enough right now? Has the Government made schools safer and, in making it safer, can we then keep schools open?’

Speaking to Good Morning Britain, she added: ‘Right now we have a critical situation – yesterday we had the highest number of daily Covid cases, over 41,000 cases of coronavirus in this country.

‘By Christmas Day we had more people in hospitals than at the peak in April this year, so we are in a crisis situation now.’

She added: ‘The Government has delayed opening Parliament because we are in a crisis situation but yesterday we had Michael Gove saying “No, it’s fine, we’re going to have schools open next week and we’ll have a staggered return” and, frankly, that’s not acceptable, and that’s not safe.’

Sage members also reportedly warned ministers that even if another national lockdown was introduced, the reopening of schools could still cause infections to spike and advised keeping the majority closed in January, according to The Telegraph.

On Monday, crunch talks were held between ministers, Downing Street officials and the Department for Education (DfE), as pressure continues to mount.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Mr Gove were among those who suggested that a delayed reopening would be necessary, reported The Times.

But Education Secretary Gavin Williamson reportedly wants to ‘push ahead’ with the current plan involving mass testing of students, with 1,500 military personnel set to be deployed to assist implementing the system in schools.

Government advisor Professor Andrew Hayward warned the country is ‘entering a new dangerous phase of the pandemic’ and suggested that allowing pupils to return to schools would mean stricter restrictions in other areas of society to ‘pay’ for the move.

The expert, who sits on the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), warned urgent nationwide action is needed to prevent a ‘catastrophe’ in January and February.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today: ‘We’ve had control measures that were previously controlling the old variant are not enough for this variant.

‘And so if we want to control the new variant we are going to need much tighter restrictions.’

‘From a purely epidemiological point of view, then it makes a lot of sense to keep schools closed for longer and introduce more stringent testing in them,’ Prof Hayward added.

‘Unfortunately, I think what we’ve failed to do is address the digital divide among school children such that the opportunity to provide high quality online education for the poorest parts of the community has been lost.

‘I think we’re going to have to get to schools back, maybe a little bit later, but we’re going to have to have increased restrictions in other areas of society to pay for that.’

It comes after Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, wrote to the Education Secretary on Monday demanding further action on school safety.

The letter urged Mr 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.

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.

The letter asks the Government to share the evidence and advice received from experts about schools reopening from the chief medical officer.

It reads: ‘You certainly cannot expect education staff to show good will towards your plans for education if you do not at least share all the information you have about this dreadful disease with them.’

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