Early re-opening of schools would be "foolhardy", PM warned

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Foolhardy: The NEU says that thinking schools could be re-opened with a reliance on subsequent social distancing measures for pupils and staff would be a 'foolhardy assumption' (image: Adobe Stock)
We also know a lot more about the risks the virus presents to men in their 50s, BME workers (and ...

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Any plan to re-open schools in May or June and implement social distancing measures for pupils and staff would be “foolhardy”, the prime minister has been warned.

The prime minister is being pushed to end “unhelpful speculation” on when schools and colleges may re-open.

The National Education Union (NEU) has written to Boris Johnson after increasing speculation in the national media that schools might be asked to open their doors sooner than expected, despite the on-going coronavirus outbreak.

When schools were closed for all but vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, it was widely thought that the shut-down would last through until the summer – especially with the cancellation of public examinations.

However, national newspapers and media have been reporting a variety of rumours about schools being re-opened as part of a plan to kick-start the recovery of the British economy.

Stories in the media have including claims that schools will open after the May half-term, that there will be a partial re-opening from May 11, or that the government will opt for staggered re-opening from June.

Speculation was not helped after education secretary Gavin Williamson acknowledged publicly that the continued school closures will have a detrimental impact on pupil progress because of the lack of pupil-teacher interaction. However, he has also said that he does not want schools re-opened until it is safe.

According to the UN’s education body, Unesco, more than 90 per cent of the world’s pupils have been affected by school closures. Around the world, many school systems remain closed, including in the Chinese city of Wuhan where the pandemic began – schools there are still closed 12 weeks after the city went into lockdown.

In Europe, France has extended its lockdown until May 11, and while the closure of restaurants and certain shops is set to continue until July, President Macron has hinted that crèches and primary schools may begin to re-open sooner to support workers.

Elsewhere, Denmark is beginning a phased return to school this month although other countries such as Austria are being more cautious.

It is widely expected that lockdown measures in the UK will be extended well into May. The UK currently has the fifth most official deaths from coronavirus in the world – behind France, Spain, Italy and the US – and there are 100,000 reported cases.

In the letter to the prime minster, the NEU’s joint general secretaries Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney said that their members were “disturbed” by the media speculation – which they add is “seemingly being stimulated by unnamed government ministers”.

The NEU wants to see government modelling, evidence and plans about any proposal on the re-opening of schools. They are worried that an early return will put staff and pupils at risk.

It also warns the prime minister that any plan to re-open schools that relied on the subsequent implementation of social distancing by pupils and staff would be “foolhardy”.

The letter states: “Given that an early return to full school populations will mean an increased risk to our members and the children in their care, we are writing to ask you to share your modelling, evidence and plans.”

Among their questions for the PM, the general secretaries ask whether government modelling for the re-opening of schools "is based on some notion that social distancing could be implemented in schools". They add: "We ask this because our members think it would be a foolhardy assumption."

The union is also pushing for details on whether there are plans to establish regular testing of children and staff, the availability of appropriate PPE and enhanced levels of cleaning if schools are re-opened.

The letter adds: “We believe they have a right to understand fully how any such proposal belongs within an overall government strategy to defeat the virus.”

We also know a lot more about the risks the virus presents to men in their 50s, BME workers (and families), people with any kind of pre-existing conditions and indeed 'younger people with no pre-existing health conditions at all' than we did at the start of the outbreak when schools were said to be broadly safe (or low risk) places for both children and staff to work (Professor Whitty, I think, at a public briefing probably around 18 or 19 March). Testing levels in the UK remain relatively low and if it is also true that children (and adults?) are often asymptomatic carriers of the virus we have a far more complex situation for schools than we seemed to have only a few weeks ago when schools were, in any case, already facing very significant levels of staff absence (shielding, self-isolating, etc) and pupils voting with their feet. Thinking about my own experience of working in a school before the closure - a busy state secondary - the only way that I could imagine a return working in line with current social distancing models would be with individual year groups coming in on specific days and with class times being staggered around the campus so that corridors are relatively clear. The previous situation where 20 classes of 30 pupils spilled out into various corridors six times a day or where a group of almost 400 pupils ate in the dining hall together was entirely at odds with government guidance. And that's before we even begin thinking about the practicalities of teaching in busy class rooms of 30 kids or more sitting side by side or in group-working clusters. A few, very lucky teachers, may have classrooms large enough to hold 20 pupils at a distance from each other but I can't imagine that's a common situation.

So yes, for the economy and the mental health of everyone its probably a good idea for schools to return as soon as is possible - but there does seem to be a lot of thinking still to be done.

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