Gavin Williamson has pleaded with parents to send their children back to school despite mounting criticism of the government’s plans for the start of the new academic year.
In an open letter, the under-fire education secretary insisted that children’s health and wellbeing was threatened more by being kept at home than by the “extremely low” risk posed by Covid-19.
He also claimed that “huge lengths had been taken” to prepare schools for teaching during the pandemic – even though the official guidance on how to deal with new outbreaks and local lockdowns was only published on Friday night.
Teaching unions said the new advice should have been issued “months ago” while Labour described the timing of the announcement as unfair and insulting to staff.
School leaders also reacted with dismay after the guidance on what to do in the event of a pupil developing symptoms or testing positive was apparently changed within hours of being released by the Department for Education.
The original statement suggested that the child’s entire “bubble” – potentially a whole year group – might need to self-isolate for 14 days. However, that part was quickly deleted and officials instead highlighted full guidance which states that only pupils and staff who had been in close contact with the infected person should go home.
“It is simply unacceptable that this guidance was altered immediately on what is a key issue,” said Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union.
“As it stands currently there is still no clarity on what should happen in a school where there is an outbreak. This does not build confidence in the government’s competence to keep schools safe when it scores such an own goal. In the end, this advice is better than none at all. But only just.”
The government is also facing calls to provide more support if schools are forced to teach pupils on rota systems and online because of an outbreak of coronavirus.
Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the teachers’ union NASUWT, said: “The availability of staff where there is a local lockdown or outbreak may mean that schools have to limit provision if they cannot be staffed safely.
“The government now needs to confirm that schools will have the additional resources they need to deliver an effective remote learning offer to all pupils as well as funding for additional staff that will be necessary to maintain continuity of provision in the event of local disruption.”
The children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, suggested ministers should give children their “Nightingale moment” by providing extra resources to schools in the same way as the NHS and the justice system, which have seen the opening of temporary hospitals and courts.
“The government needs to be bold, and on the sort of scale that saw hospitals built in weeks, and workers paid in furlough, to make sure no child is left behind,” she told The Guardian. “If not they risk losing a generation for good. The stakes are simply that high.”
Under the government’s new guidance, schools in local lockdown areas will follow a four-tier system to try to minimise the risk of infection. It begins with ensuring face coverings are worn by teachers and secondary school pupils in communal areas and ends with all schools returning to remote learning apart from vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers. The measures – described by the education secretary as a “last resort” – also envisage limiting the number of pupils attending school at one time using a rota of two weeks in class and two weeks at home.
Mr Williamson said in his open letter that he wanted to reassure parents that proper safeguards were being instituted, with 96 per cent of schools putting in place extra cleaning regimes and 93 per cent using staggered lunch and break times.
“There are always a few nerves before the first day back at the start of a new school year,” he wrote. “This year, understandably, there may well be some parents who have particular worries about their children returning to the classroom.
“So first and foremost, I would urge you to keep in mind that all four of our country’s chief medical officers, including Chris Whitty, are unanimous in believing the health risk posed by Covid-19 to children is extremely low.
“In fact, it is generally accepted that there is a far greater risk to children’s health and wellbeing if they don’t go to school. But more than that, I want to reassure you that huge lengths have been taken to prepare all our schools for this moment.”
Mr Williamson thanked school staff for their work during the pandemic before concluding: “If a child is not in school, they stand to lose far more than just a few months of learning. It could well put a huge dent in their future life-chances. Education is a birthright, so let’s make sure we get all children back – back to learning, back to playing and back to being kids again.”
However, Labour shadow education secretary Kate Green said the government had “repeatedly failed to show the leadership that children, their families and their teachers deserve”.
“School leaders have been asking all summer for information about what they should do in the event of local restrictions in their area,” she added. “The government’s incompetence is insulting to the school leaders and teachers who have worked so hard over summer to prepare schools for children to return.”
Additional reporting by Press Association
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