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Coronavirus: Education Secretary says reopening schools is ‘right thing to do’ despite union backlash

Gavin Williamson said he was working "very closely" with teaching unions (PA)

3 min read

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has defended plans to reopen schools from June 1 despite union demands to “step back” from the proposal.

In a joint statement published by the Trades Union Congress on Wednesday, teacher and staff unions including the GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, Unison and Unite said they did not believe it was “safe” to open school gates. 

But, speaking in the Commons on Wednesday, Mr Williamson insisted that reopening schools was the “only responsible thing to do”.

It comes after the Prime Minister said on Sunday that primary schools could reopen for some pupils from June 1 “at the earliest”.

Official guidance says class sizes will be capped at 15 and that initially only reception, year one and year six would come back to the classroom.

But unions have warned these measures do not go far enough to ensure social distancing and could mean schools become sources of coronavirus transmission.

The TUC statement said: “We call on the government to step back from June 1 and work with us to create the conditions for a safe return to schools based on the principles and tests we have set out.

“We all want schools to reopen, but that should only happen when it is safe to do so. 

“The government is showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools, and outwards from schools to parents, sibling and relatives, and to the wider community.

“Uniquely, it appears, school staff will not be protected by social distancing rules. Fifteen children in a class, combined with their very young age, means that classrooms of four- and five-year-olds could become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread.

“While we know that children generally have mild symptoms, we do not know enough about whether they can transmit the disease to adults. 

“Uniquely, it appears, school staff will not be protected by social distancing rules" - TUC statement

“We do not think that the government should be posing this level of risk to our society.”

But the Education Secretary defended the decision in the Commons, insisting that guidance had been formulated in cooperation with schools and staff. 

He said: “When have medical and scientific advice that is saying that is the right time to start bringing schools back in a phased and controlled manner, it seems only the right thing to do, the only responsible thing to do. 

“And in terms of putting our guidance together, we’ve actually worked very closely with all the teaching unions and the headteachers’ unions. 

"Bringing schools back in a phased and controlled manner, it seems only the right thing to do, the only responsible thing to do." - Gavin Williamson

“We’ve worked very closely with the sector. Every week I have been having the opportunity to meet with them and I’ve made sure my officials have made time in order to sit down with them to talk about their issues and concerns. 

“And this is what has informed and developed the guidance we have shared with schools.”

Mr Williamson also told MPs that children not able to go back to school for the next term could get access to summer classes.

He said: “We’re very closely looking at such schemes, working with schools, working with the sector, to how we can make that available to them.”

Last week, unions ruled out sending children back to the classroom until the national test and trace scheme is rolled out.

They also asked for special consideration of vulnerable students and families, additional resources for enhanced school cleaning and PPE, and for local autonomy to close schools if there are clusters of new cases of the virus.

Schools are currently only open for the children of key workers, and all summer examinations have been cancelled. 

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