Teachers fear for safety as some schools inform parents they can't reopen

Video report by ITV News Correspondent John Ray

Some schools across England are emailing parents to tell them there aren't enough teachers coming in to reopen after the Christmas break.

Millions of pupils in England are due to return to class on Monday - and minsters insist it is safe for them to do so.

But teaching unions, local councils and teachers themselves are calling for a government rethink.

ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand reports a "significant number" of schools will be "unable to reopen due to staff shortages" as some teachers do not feel it is safe to return.

Amid a flurry of messages, one teacher told ITV News: "I fear for my co-workers, my family and my own health. We feel vulnerable, scared and anxious.

"‘Teacher bashing’ has become the new norm. Where is the help? Where is the respect?"

On Sunday morning, Boris Johnson said parents should send their children to primary schools that are open on Monday, adding: "There is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe".

The prime minister told BBC One's The Andrew Marr Show: "Yes, absolutely they should in areas where schools are open."

Pressure is mounting on the government from both sides on whether children in England should return to school as normal following the Christmas holiday amid soaring Covid-19 rates.

Mr Johnson's calls for children to return to school were echoed by Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman who has warned that children’s education cannot be “furloughed” for months while Covid-19 vaccinations are rolled out and the country waits for coronavirus cases to subside.Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, the head of England's schools watchdog said that time away from school should be kept to an “absolute minimum”.

However, teaching unions are calling for the return of face-to-face teaching to be delayed, amid soaring cases of the new Covid variant.

On Sunday, a further 54,990 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in the UK in the past 24 hours, according to the Department of Health.

This made it the sixth day in a row that there were more than 50,000 new cases of Covid-19 in the UK recorded in the past 24 hours, which brings the total number of cases in the UK to 2,654,779.

It came as a leading teaching union advised primary school staff not to return to classrooms on Monday, amid what it said were unsafe conditions amid the pandemic.

On Friday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that all London primary schools will remain shut next week "as a last resort" as the capital battles with high levels of coronavirus infections.

Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman has said school closures put 'children's lives on hold'. Credit: PA

Most other primary schools in England are expected to still open on Monday while secondary schools will reopen on a staggered basis, with exam year pupils returning on January 11 and others returning a week later.

Schools will remain open for vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, as they did when they were shut in the spring and early summer.

In Scotland, the Christmas holidays have been extended to January 11, and the following week will be online learning only. A full return to face-to-face learning is planned for January 18.

In Northern Ireland, primary school pupils will be taught online until January 11. In secondary schools, years 8 to 11 will be taught online throughout January. Years 12 to 14 will return to school after the first week of January.

In Wales, local councils have been told they can be "flexible" with when they open - with many schools aiming to return for face-to-face lessons from January 11.

Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show, Mr Johnson said he understood people's concerns about children returning for the new term but said education is "a priority".

"Schools are safe," Mr Johnson said. "It is very, very important to stress that.

"The risk to kids, to young people is really very, very small indeed. The risk to staff is very small.

"I would advise all parents thinking about want to do, look at where your area is, overwhelmingly you'll be in a part of the country where primary schools tomorrow will be open."

He added: "I understand people's frustrations, I understand people's anxieties but there is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe and that education is a priority."

Mr Johnson would not be drawn on whether primary schools would be closed if the situation did not improve in Tier 4 areas, but said the government would "keep things under constant review".

Boris Johnson has insisted that schools are safe for children to return to. Credit: PA

The PM also failed to give a definitive answer when asked whether he could guarantee schools will open on January 18 and whether GCSE and A-level exams would take place in the summer.

Mr Johnson said the government would "continue to assess" the impact of the current tier system on Covid rates.

Mr Johnson said he hoped lateral flow tests will help with the return of schools.

They will be rolled out in primary schools after secondary schools, where it is hoped they will be ready for the return of pupils.

Children's Commissioner for England Anne Longfield told ITV News schools should be the last to close and first to open, pointing to the inequality in online learning between children.

Anne Longfield on the inequality laid bare during the pandemic

“We’ve seen a stark reminder of the inequalities we have in our society during the first ten months of this pandemic.

“You have some children who were on full time curricula online from the start with a myriad of super-boosted Wi-Fi and devices, and others that were working on a cracked, broken mobile phone they borrowed or shared from siblings, at best.

“And that is something which really has baked in already, that level of inequality.

“What we’ve seen from September is children have got a real boost being back into school.”