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Some London Schools Won't Face Legal Action For Closing Over Rising Virus Rates

Some London Schools Won't Face Legal Action For Closing Over Rising Virus Rates
4 min read

A London borough that recommended its schools close early for Christmas after soaring coronavirus case figures has avoided legal action from the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

Islington Council has escaped being issued with a legal directive today which would force schools to remain open until Thursday December 18 after a day of talks with the Department for Education.

The council and civil servants agreed to give the borough one extra inset day so schools close their doors in the north London borough on Wednesday night. In return the schools will head back on January 4 instead of January 11, which the local authority had originally requested to try and curb the spread of the virus.

There has been criticism from teaching unions that the legal order given to the Royal Borough of Greenwich from Williamson had been heavy handed and unnecessary.

Earlier this week Islington Council and Waltham Forest Council were contacted by the Department for Education over their suggestion to schools that they shut.

PoliticsHome understands the letters issued by the department were not legal directives to keep schools open, like the one issued to the Royal Borough of Greenwich last night from Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson. 

Instead they were an attempt at engaging with the authorities and maintaining the government's position that the best place for children to be is in education. 

This morning the Labour leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich Council, councillor Danny Thorpe, said he would "reluctantly comply" with their legal order and keep schools open after a fraught 24 hours. He had said schools should close on Monday night. 

He said: "Yesterday the Council received a directive from the Government that schools in the borough must remain fully open until the end of term. With COVID-19 cases rising rapidly in the borough, I cannot agree that this is the correct choice for our schools.

"However, I also cannot justify the use of public funds to fight the decision in the courts. Consequently, I have no choice but to ask our schools to keep their doors open to all students rather than just continuing with online learning."

He said he had "serious concerns" about "forcing" students to attend school in person.

In Islington, where rates of coronavirus have also risen sharply in the last two days, leader Richard Watts reccomended schools close from Tuesday night until January 11. 

He told PoliticsHome: "I am despairing that this now seems to have become a political issue with the government treating our actions as an affront - which they really aren’t.

"This isn’t a political gesture from us but driven by expert public health advice, who still think we’re doing the right thing."

Councillor Watts said rates of growth in Islington are "exponential" and this is designed to keep families safe. Their current rate is 161 per 100,000 people but figures seen by the council apparently show a significant rise.

In Waltham Forest, where there are 7,272 current cases of the virus, and a rate of 425.7 cases per 100,000 people, council leader Clare Coghill, recommended schools close early but said the final decision would rest with head teachers.

The Labour politician said: “Waltham Forest now has some of the highest rates of COVID-19 anywhere in the country. In the last seven days alone, 1,125 people have tested positive.  

“This is a critical time and we believe that we need decisive action to control the spread of the virus in Waltham Forest.

“We have been speaking with Primary and Secondary School Headteachers and teachers Unions across the borough. With their support we are recommending that all schools move to online learning and only remain open for key worker and vulnerable children. We think that this should be done as soon as possible in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

“Each individual school will make their own decision and will contact parents to make arrangements for children’s continued learning this week."

Regional schools commissioners are also understood to be working with the two boroughs to try and stop school closures. 

London mayor Sadiq Khan has said schools should close early and stay closed in January for a few more days if they cannot get the mass testing that they need.

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