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Coronavirus: Nearly half of England’s primary schools ignored government’s pleas to reopen, poll suggests

Just 8 per cent of schools in North West took in more pupils on 1 June

Andy Gregory
Thursday 04 June 2020 01:44 BST
Some primary school pupils went back to school earlier this month
Some primary school pupils went back to school earlier this month (PA)

Thousands of primary schools in England have defied the government’s call for schools to reopen amid concerns that coronavirus is still too prevalent to do so.

A National Education Union (NEU) poll of members, comprising nearly 11,000 English schools, suggested that 44 per cent of schools chose not to admit more pupils on Monday.

Furthermore, data from 11 of the 12 largest local authorities in the northeast showed that 88 per cent of their 856 primary schools remained closed to additional pupils, rising to 92 per cent in the northwest.

In some areas, not a single primary school opened, according to the figures reported by The Guardian. However, more are expected to do so in the coming days.

Boris Johnson had urged schools to allow pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6 to return to school, but had conceded that he could not force them to do so until they were suitably prepared.

While many schools have continued physical lessons for vulnerable children and those whose parents are key workers, the vast majority of pupils have been learning online at home – but there are also significant numbers without the means to do so.

Despite the risks of some 700,000 children without laptops or tablets falling behind, with school leaders fearing some “may never return” to schools if they remain closed all summer, unions and scientists have criticised the government’s decision to start reopening schools on 1 June.

The Independent Sage group warned the move could risk “a new surge” of Covid-19 cases in certain communities, accusing the government of not listening to its own scientific advice,

The government’s own scientific advisory committee, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), has modelled the impact of seven different ways schools could reopen, which all result in the R rate – or the rate of transmission – increasing, the group said.

“The school reopening scenario chosen by the government is not one of those modelled by Sage, making the potential impact of reopening even more uncertain,” said the report by Independent Sage. “Robust testing systems are not in place everywhere.”

On the eve of the reopening date, the NEU accused the government of “making it up as it goes along”, alleging that the guidance issued to teachers had been changed 41 times in the three weeks since its publication.

Tory Party vice chair Caroline Johnson MP retorted that the ”hard-left” union was “chasing headlines rather than acknowledging the facts around the phased, cautious wider opening of schools”.

Government changed schools guidance 41 times says union boss Mary Bousted

“Throughout this pandemic, the government has engaged closely with the unions, schools and local authorities and that engagement continues. Having reviewed the scientific and medical advice from Sage, all of us want to ensure children can get the education they need whilst ensuring the risk of transmission is very low.​”

On Wednesday, chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty reassured parents the risk of coronavirus to children is low as he stressed the importance of schools reopening.

“Clearly there’s a very complicated balancing act for society in terms of the possibility of increasing the transmission on the one hand and depriving children of their education on the other,” Prof Whitty said at the Downing Street briefing.

“This is a very hard balancing act but this is where we’re trying to, as a society, walk between two risks, a risk to education and a risk to health. And the rates of transmission are now much lower than they were at the point when schools were closed.

“I fully understand, as everyone fully understands, people wanting to think this through but ... the biggest concern is going to be the health of their children and this is a disease that can affect children but is very unlikely to compared to adults.”

His remarks came as a University of Warwick study found the measures proposed for 1 June were unlikely to lead to a second wave of infection.

“In isolation, this is unlikely to push R above 1, but there still remains uncertainty over the consequences of other recent changes that have relaxed the lockdown,” said lead author Professor Matt Keeling.

Chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance has warned that the R is close to 1 and that the level of new transmissions “is not coming down fast”, urging that the newly eased lockdown measures must be kept carefully under review.

However, as seen in the northeast – which has the highest rate of infection in England – many school leaders have decided they are not willing to take the risk of reopening yet.

“It was always reckless of Boris Johnson to set an arbitrary date and expect schools to fall in line,” said NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney. “Heads and their staff know far more about their individual challenges than Whitehall ever will. As the regional variation according to coronavirus levels show, schools are listening to the science rather than politicians.

“Not only is the safety of the government’s plan in question but also the feasibility of it and confidence of headteachers in what the prime minister requested.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “From this week, many schools have begun welcoming children from reception, year 1 and year 6 back to the classroom as part of a phased and cautious approach.

“To prepare for this, headteachers and school staff have been doing an excellent job, including putting protective measures in place and engaging with parents and children. We will continue to support schools who haven’t yet been able to open more widely to do so as soon as possible.”

Additional reporting by PA

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