28 December 2020 16:37
Downing Street and the Department for Education are likely to decide on Monday whether schools can reopen on schedule, in the face of calls from scientists for a delay to the staggered start to act as a firewall since limited Christmas mixing was permitted across parts of the UK. Gove said he hoped primary school pupils and year 11 and year 13 pupils in England would be able to return in the first week of January, with the rest going back later in the month – but said it would be kept under review. "Teachers and headteachers have been working incredibly hard over the Christmas period since schools broke up in order to prepare for a new testing regime – community testing – in order to make sure that children and all of us are safer," he told Sky News. The UK's largest teachers' union has said the reopening of schools in England should be delayed for at least two weeks amid mounting concern about the new strain of Covid-19 spreading from London and the south-east. "Our worry is that they won't make the right decision today and do what they have done all the way through the pandemic, which is to take an ideological line and get schools back before the testing programme can be properly put in place," said Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU).
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), which is also worried about the transmissibility of the new variant among children, has said the government should immediately share the outcome of its decision with teachers. The Scottish government has said schools in Scotland will only reopen fully on 18 January if the spread of the new strain is managed. The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said parents would be anxious about reports that government scientific advisers had lobbied for extended school closures. "The government is failing to be honest with parents and pupils about the return of schools in January," Green said, but stopped short of calling for a delay to the restart. "Parents, pupils and staff will be increasingly worried by the drip-feed of media reports saying scientists have advised the closure of schools in January, yet the prime minister has failed to be clear about the advice he has received." Green said it was "a litany of government failures" that put schools at risk of closure and Johnson should hold a press conference on Monday to set out the advice he was following, along with England's chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, and the UK government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.
There have been demands for the return of pupils after the Christmas holidays to be delayed - including from teaching unions- until later in January, with scientists having warned only keeping schools and universities closed will dampen infection rates. But Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove told Sky News that - for now - the government remained committed to its plan for pupils to return from 4 January under a staggered schedule. "But teachers and headteachers have been working incredibly hard over the Christmas period, since schools broke up, in order to prepare for a new testing regime - community testing in order to make sure that children and all of us are safer. Labour called for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Sir Patrick and England's chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, to appear at a Downing Street news conference on Monday to address concerns over the return of schools. Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: "The government is failing to be honest with parents and pupils about the return of schools in January.
"Parents, pupils and staff will be increasingly worried by the drip feed of media reports saying scientists have advised the closure of schools in January, yet the prime minister has failed to be clear about the advice he has received.