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Government's own science advisers flag risks to opening schools in June

PLANS to reopen schools by June 1 still present “some risks” and holding back could save lives, the government’s own scientific advisers warned yesterday.

The scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) report threw further doubt on the plans just hours after an independent group of scientists warned that it was “too soon” for pupils to return to classrooms safely.

Evidence on how likely it is that children can transmit Covid-19 remains “inconclusive,” Sage said, while warning that wider issues such as whether families from black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are more at risk must be taken into account. 

Teachers do not appear to be at a greater risk of catching coronavirus than other professions but there is still some risk if schools reopen, the report said.

Earlier, a new model by the Independent Sage committee showed that the risk to children would be halved if ministers delayed their planned school opening date by two weeks.

The later reopening date would allow for more time for an effective “test, trace and isolate” programme to be established, the committee said, adding that there is “no clear evidence” that these conditions have been met.

If the wider opening of schools was delayed until September, it would reduce the risk of coronavirus to children to below the possibility of death through a road traffic accident.

National Education Union (NEU) joint general secretary Mary Bousted said Sage had not modelled the Prime Minister’s plans, pointing to a “cavalier attitude towards the nation’s children.”
 
“If we cannot be certain about the transmission of the virus — and it appears SAGE cannot, either — then it is only right to exercise caution,” she said.
 
“It remains the case that the NEU does not yet think it safe for the wider opening of schools. In addition to track and trace and the case numbers, we need to see regular testing and PPE for those who need it.”

Ms Bousted said the government had made “many missteps” since the crisis began and the union was glad that some science was finally available.

Teachers’ union NASUWT’s general secretary Patrick Roach warned that the Sage paper “will only add to teachers’ uncertainty and anxiety.”

He said the union remains of the view that no school should reopen until it can be demonstrated that it is safe to do so, adding that organisers remain ready to work with the government on a way forward.

Unison head of education John Richards said the Independent Sage report was the evidence school staff and teachers were waiting for.

“Ministers need to heed these concerns, stop doggedly pushing schools to meet the arbitrary June 1 deadline and ensure proper tracking and tracing is up and running first,” he said.

“There are real concerns the government is gambling with the safety of pupils, staff and the wider community.  

“It’s time ministers took a step back and delayed any moves to increase the number of pupils in schools until it’s safer to do so.”

Only 2 per cent of school support staff said they feel reassured by PM Boris Johnson’s speech and recent government guidance, according to a poll of 45,000 workers by Unison.

And 77 per cent said they are not confident that their school has the resources and expertise to ensure all health and safety measures and risk assessments will be in place in time.

A BBC survey found that a small number of councils were advising schools to open more widely on the target date, while two thirds of respondents said they could not guarantee schools would reopen for reception, year-one and year-six pupils.

Scotland will not reopen schools until August 11 on a part-time basis, while the Welsh government has not set a target.

A Department for Education spokesperson said it wants children back in school “as soon as possible” for the sake of their education and wellbeing and claimed plans were based on “the best scientific and medical advice.” 

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