Doctors have backed teachers in the escalating row with the government over the early reopening of schools in England.
The Children’s Commissioner has also weighed in behind the government and called on all sides to “stop squabbling and agree a plan” following yesterday’s (Friday) talks between teachers’ unions and government about plans to reopen schools on June 1.
The Telegraph warns the issue is “now set to be a major flashpoint in the government’s [lockdown] exit strategy and will hinder attempts to gradually reopen the economy.”
School issue is deepening divides across UK
Deepening divides within the UK are being exposed as schools in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are expected to remain closed despite the UK government’s plan to return children to the classroom after weeks of homeschooling.
Splits are also appearing in England. Liverpool City Council maintains 109 primary schools and “in a significant blow to the government” became the first local authority to rule out reopening its schools until June 15 at the earliest.
“Our guiding principle is that schools can only re-open to other pupils when it is safe to do so and not a moment before,” said the council in a letter to parents and carers, published by the Liverpool Echo.
“Only once we can be sure that schools are safe for both children and staff will they be able to open to more children. The safety of your child, and of our staff, is our top priority.”
The letter reminds that “the government has made it clear they will not be fining parents for not sending children into school during this term” unless advised otherwise by a social worker.
BMA says teachers ‘absolute right’ to oppose early reopening
The British Medical Association (BMA) said teaching unions had been “absolutely right” to prioritise testing and urge caution before the staged reopening of England’s primary schools on June 1.
“We cannot risk a second spike or take actions which would increase the spread of this virus, particularly as we see sustained rates of infection across the UK,” said the BMA council’s chair, Chaand Nagpaul, in a letter to the National Education Union (NEU)
The BMA – the UK’s largest trade union for doctors – said coronavirus infections remained too high for schools to reopen safely and scientific studies show that there is conflicting evidence about the effectiveness of reopening schools.
“Until we have got case numbers much lower, we should not consider reopening schools.” said Nagpaul in his the letter to NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney.
‘There is still a lot of uncertainty about the science’
Courtney said “very many questions that we asked were not addressed” in yesterday’s meeting with the government and its advisers, and called on the answers to be made “in public written form”.
In a statement on NEU’s website, Courtney said: “We were told that we are in the foothills of knowledge and there is still a lot of uncertainty about the science, for example, we were told children’s likelihood to transmit Covid-19 is not more than adults but only that it may be less than adults,” said Courtney.
“Just yesterday the Office of National Statistics suggested that age does not affect the likelihood of being infected. Today we heard that there are cases where children do act as the index case.”
‘Why is England alone in saying social distancing is not necessary in schools?’
Other questions “that we feel we still have no understandable answer to”, said Courtney include the effect on the R-rate of lifting lockdown before further steps are taken, and what conditions need to be achieved before any wider opening of schools.
Another question, said Courtney, is: “Why our country seems alone in saying that social distancing is not necessary in schools?
“We were not presented with any scientific evidence to justify the decision not to include social distancing in the guidance to English schools whereas it is an important part of the guidance in other countries, in fact we were told that they have evidence that children have passed the disease to adults.”
Children’s Commissioner – ‘We can’t afford to wait for a vaccine’
Unions and the government should “stop squabbling and agree a plan” said Children’s Commissioner Ann Longfield, who published research showing that NHS nurseries that stayed open have not reported any coronavirus outbreaks.
Longfield – appointed independent commissioner by parliament – backs government’s the plan to reopen schools for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils, and warned: “We cannot afford to wait for a vaccine, which may never arrive, before children are back in school.”
Longfield said schools need to reopen “as quickly as possible” and called for the introduction of stronger safety measures – including deep cleaning of facilities and regular testing for pupils and teachers.
“I am disappointed that the debate about when some primary school kids can return has descended into a squabble between government and the teaching unions,” said the Children’s Commissioner.
A growing disadvantage gap and struggling children
Schools were closed on March 20, except for the children of key workers and Longfield said that vulnerable and deprived children would be suffer most from a “growing disadvantage gap” with social mobility impacted harder the longer schools are closed.
Children are “struggling without seeing their friends and the structure that school brings” said Longfield. “We need to face the reality that for a number of reasons there are hundreds of thousands of children who can’t access meaningful education at home.”