Video report by ITV News Political Reporter Shehab Khan
The government is under renewed pressure to keep all schools closed for the first two weeks of the spring term as UK’s largest teaching union says members should not return to the classroom on Monday if they no not feel it is safe amid fears over the spread of the new strain of Covid-19.
The National Education Union (NEU) said all primary and secondary schools should remain closed for two weeks following the Christmas break while the NASUWT has written to the Education Secretary calling for an “immediate nationwide move to remote education” for all pupils.
The National Education Union said it will advise its members of their legal right not to have to work in an unsafe environment and said staff should not go back to work on Monday if they feel it is unsafe.
Brighton and Hove City Council has advised primary schools to delay reopening and teach remotely until January 18 due to increased rates of Covid-19, and has written to Gavin Williamson asking to be included in the schools allowed to remain online-only.
Councillor Hannah Clare, chair of the Children, Young People & Skills Committee, said: “Our published data – up to December 27 – shows that the rate in Brighton & Hove has increased by more than 500% since we came out of lockdown at the beginning of December. It is currently 388 per 100,000.
Meanwhile, headteachers began legal action against the Department for Education on Saturday in an attempt to force ministers to reveal why they think it is safe to reopen schools on Monday, given the higher transmissibility of the new Covid-19 variant, particularly among children.
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) union said it has brought preliminary steps in legal proceedings against the Department for Education, joined by the Association of School and College Leaders.
Political reporter Shehab Khan on the growing schools storm
General secretary of the NAHT Paul Whiteman the union had asked the government to share information on issues including the scientific advice the Government is drawing on as well as proposals for testing in schools.
The union said it is now waiting for the government’s response following the request.
On Friday, Gavin Williamson confirmed that all primary schools in London will remain closed next week rather than just those in certain boroughs as set out earlier in the week following the government's latest U-turn.
Unions say extending that to all schools in England is “the only sensible and credible option”.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, questioned the government's "inadequate" and "inept" education ministers and called on all primary and secondary schools to remain closed to help drive down infection rates.
“We are informing our members of their legal right to protection to be guided by the science. In order for viral levels in children and in the community to decrease to below R1, primary schools should not open in the first weeks of January," Dr Bousted said.
She said: "With the highest level of Covid-19 infection, and hospitals buckling under the tsunami of very ill patients, it is time for ministers to do their duty - to protect the NHS by following SAGE advice and close all primary and secondary schools to reduce the R rate below 1.
"It is time for the government to protect its citizens, and in particular its children, by shutting all primary schools for two weeks in order for the situation to be properly assessed, schools made much safer and children and their families protected." Dr Bousted told ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand that Mr Williamson had “lost the confidence of teachers and parents” and remaining in his post now looks “very difficult”.
Asked about the rollout of mass testing in secondary schools, Dr Bousted said the preparations were “equally chaotic”.
Test supplies are due to be delivered to schools on Monday, and Dr Bousted said a secondary school with 1,000 pupils will need approximately 21 trained volunteers to carry it out.
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Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the last-minute nature of the Government’s decision had caused “huge stress” for pupils, families and staff.
She said: “This is yet another Government U-turn creating chaos for parents just two days before the start of term.”
The move is expected to see similar arrangements to the spring lockdown when schools continued to accept children from key worker families but moved to online learning for the vast majority of pupils.
Mr Williamson said the decision to close all London primary schools had been a “last resort”.
On Wednesday, the Government announced primary school pupils in some of the areas hardest hit by Covid-19 in England will not return to their desks as planned next week, with students in exam years returning to secondary schools a week later than planned, from January 11, while other secondary and college students will go back full-time on January 18.
But the education secretary has now bowed to pressure again as he expanded the primary school closures to the whole of London.
More than a million primary school children will now be learning from home for at least the first two weeks of term.
Vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers will still be allowed to attend school.