The government is facing a major revolt from teachers after the National Education Union advised its members in primary schools not to return to classrooms on Monday due to the risks of COVID-19.
In a statement on Saturday afternoon the National Education Union (NEU) said, “Today, the National Education Union has taken the difficult decision to advise its members in primary schools that it is unsafe to return to work on Monday.” The union is calling upon the Government to move learning online in all primary schools including primary special schools across England for at least 2 weeks, except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.
As it stands, all primary schools are to remain closed to most pupils across London, following a government u-turn on Friday. Schools in some surrounding areas are also set to stay closed. Education Minister Gavin Williamson said on Friday that keeping some schools closed ‘really is a last resort’ and said that he hoped to see them open again as soon as possible – however, calls have been growing for schools to remain closed across the country.
Cases of COVID-19 have been rising rapidly across the UK recently, fuelled by the new variant of COVID-19 which is thought to be around 70% more transmissible than the previous variant. Teachers, unions, doctors, parents and scientists have expressed concerns over schools reopening in England and new advice to teachers from the UK’s largest Education Union could force the government into another u-turn.
The union briefed thousands of its members on Saturday lunchtime, while thousands more are set to be engaged in online briefings during the weekend.
Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union said;
“The National Education Union knows that the science suggests that to get infection rates down schools should not be open in the first two weeks of January.
“The reports from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine from the 23rd of December, the Sage papers dated 22nd of December but released on 31st of December or the report from Imperial College on the 31st of December – all have the same message – that it will not be possible with the new variant to get R below one without at least a period of school closure.
“Cases were rising rapidly amongst school age children at the end of last term and they were the highest rates of any demographics. These children live as part of families and in communities and they can spread the infection into their families and into the wider community.
‘There is scientific concern that the new variant might be more prevalent amongst younger people than the previous variants.
‘We are calling on Gavin Williamson to actually do what he professes he does – to follow the science and announce, now, that primary schools in England should move learning online – apart from key worker and vulnerable children for at least the first two weeks of January.”
Mr Courtney added,
“We realise that this late notice is a huge inconvenience for parents and for head teachers. The fault, however, is of the Government’s own making and is a result of their inability to understand data, their indecisiveness and their reckless approach to their central duty – to safeguard public health.
“Education is really, really important but you’re not going to get that education if this virus gets out of control in the community as schools will have to close then for a longer period of time.
“We do want schools to be open safely as soon as possible. We want to work with Government to achieve that central aim”.
More than three-quarters of England is currently under Tier 4 lockdown restrictions, though there are growing concerns that these measures will not do enough to tackle the virus while schools remain open. It is understood that the SAGE committee (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) advised the Government on 22 December that the ‘R’ rate of the virus would remain above 1 unless schools are closed, and that there is uncertainty whether even closing schools would be enough to control the new variant of the virus.
The return of secondary schools and colleges has already been delayed for exam year pupils until 11 January, and for other pupils until 18 January in order to allow for Coronavirus testing preparations. Schools which are closed are expected to remain open for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, plus deliver distance learning for all other pupils.
The Government has been clear in recent weeks that keeping schools open is a national priority, however, they are facing ever-growing pressure to close schools to protect the country from the virus.