Coronavirus: Staff shortage schools will be forced to close, ministers are warned

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

School leaders are holding on-going talks this week with the Department for Education (DfE) as pressure builds over the government’s refusal to close schools in the face of the coronavirus emergency.

The government has been warned that “it is likely” a number of schools will be forced to close anyway as more and more staff self-isolate.

In his now daily coronavirus briefing on Monday, prime minister Boris Johnson said that everyone in the UK should stop "non-essential" travel and contact with others, working from home where possible. However, he has still refused to close schools.

As of Tuesday morning (March 17), more than 1,550 people have tested positive for the virus in the UK, although experts estimate that the actual number of cases could be from 35,000 to 50,000. There have been 55 confirmed deaths.

Representatives from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) met with education secretary Gavin Williamson on Monday (March 16).

In a joint statement on Monday evening, ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton and NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said that the meeting had been “very productive” and that further talks would be taking place during this week.

They added: “The government is well aware of our concerns. We will continue working with the government to identify and tackle a number of issues for schools and colleges arising from the coronavirus emergency.

“The most immediately pressing challenge is the difficulty in keeping schools open with growing numbers of staff having to self-isolate.

“It is likely that a number of schools will have to close because there are too few staff available to teach, support and supervise children.”

The trade unions, which between them represent the vast majority of school leaders in the UK, also raised concerns about the implications for pupils with SEND, children who receive free school meals and vulnerable children who are identified safeguarding risks if they have to self-isolate or if a school closes.

They also discussed the impact on this summer’s SAT, GCSE and A level examinations, currently planned for May and June.

They continued: “We must move quickly to provide clarity and address the obvious anxiety for pupils, families and staff about what may or may not happen, and what contingencies are in place to deal with the inevitable disruption.”

Speaking at the ASCL annual conference last week, education secretary Gavin Williamson said that “we are clear that the best course of action is to keep schools open unless you are advised to close by Public Health England.

“The Chief Medical Officer has said the impact of closing schools on children’s education will be substantial, but the benefit to public health would not be. The government is particularly mindful of the strain on public services like the NHS that would be caused by key workers having to stay home to look after their children. We will be constantly reassessing this position based on what the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser tell us.”

On Saturday (March 14), the National Education Union (NEU) wrote to the prime minister asking why schools are not being closed and asking for fuller disclosure of the models on which the government is basing its coronavirus strategy.

In the letter, joint general secretaries Kevin Courtney and Dr Mary Bousted said: “We do not have the medical expertise to know what the transmissibility is between children and staff in close quarters in classrooms – but your scientists will have made assumptions about that, together with some view of the certainty of those figures.

“It is very important that we understand what the increased rate of infection is for staff and parents if school remain open, including obviously for those with underlying health conditions themselves, or for those they care for.

“We know you’ve expressed concerns about children not in school being cared for by vulnerable elderly grandparents, or by NHS staff who would then not be available for work. However, we would suggest that parents and schools would be able to work together to find solutions to that – and we would like to know if you have any modelling of such societal responses.”

However, speaking on Monday (March 16), the prime minister refused to change his stance for the time being. He said: "We think on balance it is better that we can keep schools open for all sorts of reasons but this is something we need to keep under review.”

After the prime minister's briefing on Monday, Ofsted confirmed that it would suspend all routine school inspections planned for this coming week and is in discussions with the DfE about the "longer-term picture". The inspectorate had come under pressure to suspend inspections in light of the coronavirus emergency and in light of suspensions in both Wales and Scotland. Ofsted published advice on Friday (March 13) on how schools in England badly affected, including by staff shortages, can defer inspection (for the latest on inspection and coronavirus, see here).

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, the education minister Peter Weir issued guidance to schools on Monday (March 16). He said: “The Department of Education (DoE) has also instigated a range of contingency planning measures, including the establishment of a COVID-19 Education Planning Group to co-ordinate efforts across the education sector.

“I want to make clear that any decision to close schools and other educational settings will be backed up by expert, clear and unambiguous advice and guidance provided to me by the Chief Medical Officer, the Public Health Agency and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.”

Elsewhere, the NEU has cancelled its annual conference in light of the crisis. The event, which attracts around 1,500 people, had been planned for April 6 to 9 in Bournemouth.

The NASUWT is due to hold its annual conference in Birmingham on April 10 to 13 and has not yet decided whether this will go ahead.


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