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School return plan is missing the mark

Teachers call for clearer guidance on the risks of pupils returning to classrooms

TEACHERS across Britain have been given insufficient guidance for pupils’ imminent return to classrooms, their unions warned today.

Representatives from the National Education Union (NEU), NASUWT and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) called for clarity on the risks to staff and to pupils’ families as schools are set to return during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it is the “national priority” and a “moral duty” to get kids in England back to classrooms next month, but he has been warned by advisers that “trade-offs” may be necessary to keep the rate of transmission down.

The children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has also called for improvements to the testing programme before pupils return, saying that teachers and children should be tested weekly to prevent transmission.

Union leaders said that it was important for pupils to return to school, but warned of flaws in the government’s strategy and called for more clarity on how to suppress the virus when classes resume.

NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “Schools should be one of the first areas to open if they can safely, but we have concerns that the science is not clear enough. 

“It would be terrible if the R [the number of individuals who, on average, will be infected by a single person with the infection] goes above one again, as that would mean a second peak.

“We also continue to have concerns about vulnerable staff, parents and grandparents, and the government needs to be much clearer on the advice and risks for them.” 

While Education Secretary Gavin Williamson claimed today that there is “little evidence” of a Covid-19 transmission risk in schools, Janet Newsham, chairwoman of the Hazards Campaign for workplace safety, branded the claim “patently untrue” and warned that the September return could drive up the number of Covid-19 cases.

Citing recent studies, Ms Newsham said: “Crowding kids back into these schools is an unnecessary gamble and could be counterproductive, setting back efforts to prevent Covid-19 and leading to further shutdowns.”

With some regional lockdowns still in place, the ASCL said that teachers might have to teach students on a week-on, week-off basis to limit numbers if a resurgence of coronavirus occurs.

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said that school staff are “losing patience” with demands to have all children back in class next month while a back-up plan is not in place.

NEU deputy general secretary Avis Gilmore backed the need for “a clear plan B” alongside robust testing in case of a second spike of the virus.

Teachers in Scotland returned to work today, with pupils beginning to return this week before a full resumption of classes from August 18. 

Despite the return of pupils being just days away, many teachers north of the border do not believe that it is safe to return to work.

Almost half of teachers questioned by the NASUWT last week did not think that it is safe for pupils to return.

More than 70 per cent had not been given assurances that personal protective equipment would be provided, while 87 per cent felt anxious about schools being reopened to all pupils.

NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach said: “Teachers need to be given the same level of protection as employees in any other workplace.

“This is deeply concerning and must be addressed immediately.”

The Scottish government said that the health and wellbeing of pupils and staff is its top priority and that guidance sets out the appropriate approach.

In a statement, the Department for Education said that schools reopening in September is a national priority because children will “benefit from interacting with their teachers and friends. 
 
“We have always been and will continue to be guided by the best scientific and medical advice and our detailed guidance sets out protective measures for schools to implement to reduce risks for staff and pupils as far as possible,” it claimed.
 
“This includes teachers being advised to maintain social distancing between themselves and their pupils wherever possible.”

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