The Prime Minister has reiterated his desire to open all schools in England in September – branding it a ‘moral duty’ to do so despite a backlash to the plans. Amid fears from some parents around sending pupils back – and scepticism from some unions and politicians, Boris Johnson said:
‘It’s not right that kids should spend more time out of school, it’s much much better for their health and mental wellbeing, obviously their educational prospects, if everybody comes back to school full-time in September. It’s our moral duty as a country to make sure that happens.’
The PM struck a conciliatory tone to education unions, praising the work they had done to make classrooms safe, amid calls for a ‘week-on, week-off’ system.
Speaking to reporters at a school in east London today, he continued: ‘It’s very important that everybody works together to ensure that our schools are safe and they are – they are Covid secure – I have been very impressed by the work that the teachers have done, working with the unions, to make sure that all schools are safe to go back to in September.
‘A lot of work being done over making sure that there’s social distancing, bubbling, staggered start times, all that kind of thing. ‘But, basically, the plan is there – get everybody back in September, that’s the right thing for everybody.’ The latest tensions over Covid-19’s impact on education come as a European study suggested reopening schools was not a major danger in community transmission of the disease.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control studied 15 countries, including the UK, and concluded: ‘There is conflicting published evidence on the impact of school closure/re-opening on community transmission levels, although the evidence from contact tracing in schools, and observational data from a number of EU countries suggest that re-opening schools has not been associated with significant increases in community transmission.’
Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and a member of the Government’s Sage scientific advisory group, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday that ‘reopening schools is one of the least risky things we can do’. His comments were echoed by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who said there was little evidence of transmission in schools.
But The Association of School and College Leaders said teachers might teach students on a week-on, week-off basis if there was a resurgence of coronavirus and schools were forced to limit the number of pupils attending, with the onus on parents to home-school in the alternate weeks. The union’s general secretary Geoff Barton said schools were ‘losing patience’ with the Government’s demand to have all children back in school next month while framing no back-up plan if this was not possible.
‘If you want to limit the number of children on site or travelling to and from school, a big part of that is using rotas and the obvious way to do it is “week on, week off”,’ he told The Daily Telegraph. Meanwhile, Greater Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham said that the Test and Trace programme had to be better to give parents the confidence to send their children back to school.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast on Monday he called on the Government to give more resources to local councils to trace people the national call centres were unable to reach and to also allow people to self-isolate on full pay.
Mr Burnham added: ‘So many people are struggling to self-isolate because they just can’t afford it. We are saying to the Government: you have got to give all employees in the country the ability to self-isolate on full pay, and it’s only that approach that will get Test and Trace system working properly.’ Mr Burnham compared the request to self-isolate to jury service and said people should be supported to do it.