‘No evidence, no clarity’: Teaching unions left with more questions than answers after meeting with government scientists on reopening plans

NASUWT says ‘no school should reopen until it can demonstrate it is safe to do so’

Zoe Tidman
Friday 15 May 2020 21:59
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Coronavirus in numbers

A teachers’ union has said a meeting with government scientific advisers “raised more questions than answers” amid controversial plans to start welcoming students back to schools next month.

Dr Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT, said: “Nothing in the meeting provided reassurance for the deeply worried and anxious school workforce.”

Meanwhile, another education union that spoke to Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty on Friday said it left without receiving answers to many of their questions.

The National Education Union (NEU) said it was still unclear on what conditions must be met for a wider reopening of schools, and why there is not more emphasis on social distancing in government advice to schools.

Schools have been told to start planning for some pupils ⁠– including those in early year settings, reception and year 1 ⁠– to return on 1 June, and for all primary school students to be back in school before the summer holidays.

The targets have been criticised by some education unions, which have aired concerns for pupil and staff safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

This week, a group of nine unions called for the government to “step back” from its 1 June goal and said it was too early for any assurances that it was safe for children to return.

Separately, the National Union for Head Teachers (NAHT) told members there was no point planning for all primary students to return before summer, as this was not “realistic”.

On Friday, it emerged schools in Liverpool would not be opening up to more students on 1 June ⁠– the government’s target for the first pupils to start coming back.

The mayor said earlier this week said he was “minded to resist” the prime minister’s suggested partial reopening date because of safeguarding concerns.

After union leaders met with officials on Friday, the head of education at Unison said the meetings were “useful” but “questions remain around the capacity for schools to be able to fully test, trace and isolate children and school staff”.

“Many support staff come from backgrounds that put them at greater risk if they’re infected with Covid-19,” Jon Richards said.

“Workers including teaching assistants, cleaners and school meals staff mustn’t be put in danger just because the government is in a hurry to get schools running again.”

Dr Roach from the NASUWT teachers’ union said: “No information was provided to change the widely held view that the evidence base for opening schools from 1 June is weak. No evidence was provided at the meeting and there was no clarity about when it will be provided by Sage.

“No confirmation was provided that teachers are at low risk of catching the virus following the wider opening of schools.”

Dr Roach said the union “remains clear that no school should reopen until it can demonstrate that it is safe to do so”.

The NEU’s joint general secretary, Kevin Courtney, said he was told in Friday’s meeting about the reopening of schools “there is still a lot of uncertainty about the science”.

On Friday afternoon, the education ministry published an overview on the scientific evidence guiding its response to coronavirus following calls for greater transparency.

“The exact rates of infectivity and transmission of children are not fully known yet; this is a novel virus and the scientific understanding is developing all the time,” the document read.

In a question and answer session on Mumsnet on Friday, the minister for children and families said the potential reopening of schools to some pupils on 1 June depends on what the scientific advice is at the time.

“We are asking schools, colleges and childcare providers to plan on this basis, ahead of confirmation that these tests are met,” Vicky Ford said.​

Some headteachers have expressed concerns over whether social distancing can be done properly in schools when they reopen, particularly with young children.

“I think what the government have is a glaring lack of understanding about how nursery and reception children behave,” Darren Morgan, the school leader at Kings Road Primary School in Manchester, told The Independent.

“They just cannot be socially distanced. We can put all the measures in place in the world.”

A headteacher from the St George’s Church of England Primary School in Kent wrote to parents this week saying: “I am not going to sit here and write to you to say we can achieve social distancing in a school”.

Howard Fisher said: “What is missing from this discussion is a sensible, rational debate around better solutions, such as repeating a year and coming back when we have more science to support us. Believe me, I would rather any child repeats a year than go back too soon and have to lose a child.”

The government published advice for how primary schools can work to reopen this week, recommending wearing PPE when dealing with a child with Covid-19 symptoms and not using rota systems.

The headteacher of Quarry Bank Primary School in Dudley told The Independent: “Teachers are worried that in any other situation, where socially distancing can’t be observed, then people are encouraged to wear PPE ⁠– but not in schools.”

Alex Rawlings said: “We’ve been advised to use PPE when managing children with symptoms, but you’d be very hard pressed to find a school that has eye protection, for example.”

However, some schools have already committed to reopening next month ⁠– if the government goes ahead with its plans.

They have been looking at introducing one-way systems, half days and staggered lunches in a bid to keep young children apart.

Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Trust ⁠– an academy trust with 35 primary schools across the country ⁠– has said that it is “common sense” for pupils to return to school, especially for children from lower-income families who see it as a place of “security and safety”.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said on Friday: “Getting children back to school is vital for their educational development and many schools are already taking steps to welcome back their pupils. I am grateful for their support.

“I want to reassure parents and families that we are giving schools, nurseries and other providers all the guidance and support they will need to welcome more children back in a phased way and no earlier than 1 June.

Mr Williamson added: “That’s why we have engaged closely with stakeholders from across the sector throughout the past seven weeks, including the trade unions, and today we arranged a detailed briefing for them with the scientific and medical experts.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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