Teachers’ union urges ‘some’ school closures to fight coronavirus spread
Education leaders have urged school closures "at least for some time and in some areas" in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.
The National Education Union (NEU) said the running of schools will be made "all the more complicated" as they advise teachers and staff who are classed as vulnerable to self-isolate.
But the Education Secretary insisted on Tuesday that the current medical and scientific guidance says that schools and other educational settings should remain open.
Gavin Williamson, while announcing the suspension of routine Ofsted inspections, said they will announce closures if the chief medical officer or chief scientific adviser say it is in the best interests of children and teachers.
The leaders say there is an "apparent contradiction" between bans on large gatherings and a refusal to close schools.
It comes after a huge backlash from teachers and parents – some of whom have decided to keep their children at home despite the official advice.
On Monday Boris Johnson told the UK public to avoid public gatherings big and small with all those who can work from home being asked to do so.
Boris Johnson said: "There is an argument about school closures.
"We think at the moment on balance it's much better if we can keep schools open, for all sorts of reasons. But I appreciate again that this is something we need to keep under review."
But minutes earlier Mr Johnson had said adults must stop "all non-essential social contact" to help contain the coronavirus, Boris Johnson has said.
Today the UK government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told a select committee that the school closures were "absolutely on the table".
However he adds it would create "an enormous problem for the workforce" and specifically for the NHS.
He says that when they looked at the list of measures in order of which would have the biggest impact "school closing was lower down on the list".
The letter from the Joint General Secretaries of the National Education Union Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney referred to guidance that says pregnant women, people over the age of 70 and those with certain health conditions will be asked to stay at home in the coming days.
Dr Bousted and Mr Courtney said: "We intend to advise all our members in these categories or caring for people in them to stop attending schools and colleges from next Monday at the latest. Some will do so earlier.
"This will make the running of schools all the more complicated.
"Given your failure to release modelling comparing different scenarios of school closures, we are now forced to call on you to close schools, at least for some time and at least in some areas."
Dr Bousted and Mr Courtney proposed that teachers and school leaders work on plans to open schools on a limited basis.
This would allow care for pupils whose parents work in emergency services and distribution, as well as ensuring children in food poverty have access to free school meals.
They added: "Of course, this could not be a full opening and it would mean substantial changes from the way schools are normally run – but we believe schools could be important community hubs.
"This in turn requires that Sats are abandoned and that you produce proposals on the inevitable widespread disruption to GCSE and A-level exams."
In a video posted on Twitter, Mr Williamson said: "The chief medical officer has said the impact of closing schools on children's education will be substantial, but the benefit to public health would not be.
"We are following the advice of our medical and scientific community every step of the way."
Following meetings with union representatives on Monday, the Education Secretary said he was drawing up a "full package of measures" to support schools staying open.
It comes after the NASUWT, which represents teachers and headteachers, said a lack of advice was creating "chaos and confusion" and placing "intolerable pressure" on staff.
Acting general secretary Chris Keates said: "All of the announcements continue to be couched as guidance or advice, which is simply serving to increase anxiety and uncertainty."
Schools are struggling with diminishing staff levels, according to the union, while changes to staff working conditions have the potential to compromise health and safety for staff and pupils.
"This situation cannot be allowed to continue," Ms Keates said.
"The UK Government working with governments and administrations across the UK must now make a definitive decision about the steps being taken to protect the school workforce and the closure of schools."
Earlier today England’s deputy chief medical officer advised parents at the school gate to stand a couple of metres apart to stop the spread of the virus.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said they wanted to minimise the amount of “close contact” between individuals.
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “It’s perfectly possible for me to drop my 11-year-old off at the school gate … and I can do that in a way that I keep a couple of metres away from other parents.
“I can still have a conversation with them if I choose to but actually I can do that safely.”
He moved to reassure families that youngsters rarely suffer serious symptoms from Covid-19, adding: “What we already have a very clear picture on is that children are not seriously affected by this virus, they don’t become ill in very large numbers at all. What we don’t know is if they are being infected and having mild illnesses, or whether they are just not being infected at all.”
London mayor Sadiq Khan told ITV's Good Morning Britain that advice on school closures could change in coming weeks.
He said: "The advice is that it makes very little clinical difference in relation to closing schools, but that advice may change… what we do know is some teachers may be pregnant, others may have underlying health issues, a child may have a persistent cough or temperature which means mum, dad, carer decides to withdraw the child.
"I wouldn't be surprised if, over the course of the two weeks before Easter, Government advice changes."
17 March 2020
Dear Prime Minister
We write again following your announcements yesterday and our letter of Saturday.
In that letter we pointed to an apparent contradiction between bans on large gatherings and a refusal to close schools.
We also said we thought that it was important to engage with all the science and appealed for more information to be released on the modelling and on the effects on vulnerable school and college teachers, other staff and parents.
We have not yet seen that further information.
You announced yesterday that vulnerable people are to confine themselves for 12 weeks from this weekend.
On our understanding this includes:
and those who are suffering from:
chronic (long-term) respiratory diseases, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or bronchitis;
chronic heart disease, such as heart failure;
chronic kidney disease;
chronic liver disease, such as hepatitis;
chronic neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), a learning disability or cerebral palsy;
problems with their spleen – for example, sickle cell disease or if they have had their spleen removed;
a weakened immune system as the result of conditions such as HIV and AIDS, or medicines such as steroid tablets or chemotherapy;
being seriously overweight (a BMI of 40 or above).
We assume that on this basis teachers and other school and college staff who have these conditions or who are caring for people with those conditions, or who are over 70 should self-isolate.
We intend to advise all our members in these categories or caring for people in them to stop attending schools and colleges from next Monday at the latest. Some will do so earlier.
We also assume that the children of parents with those conditions should also avoid school or college.
This will make the running of schools all the more complicated.
Given your failure to release modelling comparing different scenarios of school closures, we are now forced to call on you to close schools, at least for some time and at least in some areas.
We know that very many of our members who aren’t in the categories of heightened risk would be willing to volunteer to play a role in helping our society get through this crisis.
We suggest during a period of full school closure that teachers and school leaders could work on plans for more limited opening to:
ensure that we can look after the children of parents who must do the work our society needs – including NHS staff, food and distribution workers, police, prison and fire brigade staff and those who are working to produce medical equipment, including hopefully industries being re purposed to produce ventilators;
ensure that children on free school meals or otherwise in food poverty can eat nutritious meals;
support other children in need.
Of course, this could not be a full opening and it would mean substantial changes from the way schools are normally run – but we believe schools could be important community hubs. This in turn requires that SATs are abandoned and that you produce proposals on the inevitable widespread disruption to GCSE and A -level exams.
Supply teachers would also be willing to help in such ways and in any event need your support during school closure or self-isolation.
We look forward to your engagement with these ideas and we remain, as before, ready to meet with you and the Secretary of State for Education.
Given the number of staff and pupils that will now be off school, teachers and leaders will simply have to exercise their professional discretion about whether schools and colleges open and what work is undertaken – and they should do so with your approval.
We will support them in so doing.
Dr Mary Bousted
Joint General Secretaries, National Education Union
cc. Gavin Williamson
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