Major teaching union says scientific advice only adds to ‘anxiety’ around school reopening plan
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has called for some pupils to return from 1 June.
The Government’s hopes of getting teachers on board with reopening schools in June have been dealt a blow as a major union said fresh scientific advice would increase “uncertainty and anxiety”.
Ministers had hoped the publication of a batch of papers by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) would help win over teachers’ representatives on the plan to get some pupils back on 1 June.
Publication of the advice had been a key demand of unions, who have called for more reassurances that teachers and children in reception, year one and year six will be safe to return from next month.
But NASUWT, which held talks with the Department for Education this week in a bid to break the deadlock, said the latest guidance had been “inconclusive”.
The union’s general secretary Patrick Roach said: “The papers highlight the significant gaps in evidence, knowledge and understanding which remain in terms of the susceptibility of children to Covid-19 and how infectious those with mild and asymptomatic cases of the virus may be.”
And he added: “The Committee states that large-scale community testing is needed to better understand and monitor the prevalence of and susceptibility to Covid-19 in children, yet the Government’s plans for the reopening of schools from 1 June are premature whilst a widespread community testing system will not be in place.
“The Sage papers published today will only add to teachers’ uncertainty and anxiety.”
The Government has said it will only proceed with the plan - which has also met resistance from a string of councils - if the reproduction rate of coronavirus can be kept below 1.
It has also called for class sizes to be capped at 15 in a bid to limit the spread of the virus and asked neighbouring schools
The Sage reasoning published on Friday said evidence remained “inconclusive on both the susceptibility and infectivity of children” compared to adults, while suggesting that they may face a lower risk.
It modelled nine different scenarios, from the current position of schools staying open for the children of keyworkers to a full reopening, with one option of alternating opening and closures described as a “good way to stop effective transmission chains in schools”.
Sage said parents “must perceive that the risk of infection is lower before they will be willing to send their children to school” - but said school reopenings must be “eased in a logical manner”.
“Failure to do so will influence the number of parents who are willing to send their children to school,” the group said.
Ministers are meanwhile told that it may be necessary to “prioritise young teachers’ attendance” to prevent older teachers “in more vulnerable groups” from falling ill, a move the adviser say “must be negotiated, rather than imposed”.
And the advice suggests testing for coronavirus should be “maximised” in order “to inform the understanding of the severity of coronavirus events in school populations”.
Dr Roache said: "The NASUWT remains of the view that no school should reopen until it can be demonstrated that it is safe to do so. We remain ready to work with the Government on a way forward which will ensure that staff and pupils can return to schools safely.”
That view was echoed by Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long Bailey, who said: “Certainly on first reading the advice does not appear to provide the clear assurances regarding safety many school staff and parents were hoping for, stating that there is a high degree of uncertainty as to the susceptibility and infectivity of children.”
And the opposition frontbencher added: “Labour is calling for the Government to urgently convene a taskforce of education unions, parents organisations and health experts to review this advice, agree upon a series of practical safety conditions that must be met within schools before the Government confirms a date for wider reopening and to confirm that test, track and trace will be fully operational.”
Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Layla Moran meanwhile said: "The Government at the 11th hour have relented and released the scientific advice.
"Serious questions need to be asked about why it took so long for this to be made public. The delay has caused unnecessary stress to parents and teachers and left schools answering questions in the dark."