Teachers’ unions are calling for more answers from the Government over whether children and staff will be safe if schools reopen in England following a meeting with chief scientific advisers.
One leader of a teachers’ union said the scientific evidence presented at the briefing with the Government’s chief medical officer and other experts on Friday afternoon was “flimsy at best”.
Education unions say they have been left with many unanswered questions about the evidence underpinning the decision to reopen England’s schools to more pupils from June 1.
It comes as the chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA) said that the Government should not consider reopening schools in England until the case numbers are “much lower”.
In a letter addressed to Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), Dr Chaand Nagpaul said the current evidence on reopening schools is “conflicting” and he praised the union for urging caution over returning more pupils to school.
But after the meeting between unions and the scientific advisers, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said getting children back to school was “vital” for their educational development.
The Government plans to send children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 back to school from as early as next month despite opposition from teaching unions.
Patrick Roach, general secretary of the teaching union NASUWT, said they had been left with “more questions than answers” after the briefing.
He told the PA news agency: “The meeting that we had earlier this afternoon frankly was not conclusive in relation to the evidence base to support the proposal for the wider reopening of schools. That evidence is flimsy at best, in terms of the international comparisons being used.”
Dr Roach added: “Nothing in the meeting provided reassurance for the deeply worried and anxious school workforce.
“The NASUWT remains clear that no school should reopen until it can demonstrate that it is safe to do so.”
Mr Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “We are pleased with today’s engagement, but very many questions that we asked were not addressed in the time available.
“We think it is very important that all the questions are answered and in public written form. This is important for transparency and for other scientists to comment on.”
Mr Courtney said that Sir Patrick Vallance told the union that they would prioritise publishing information and papers from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
He added that the education unions were told there is still “a lot of uncertainty” about the science.
“For example, we were told children’s likelihood to transmit Covid-19 is not more than adults but only that it may be less than adults,” Mr Courtney said.
“Just yesterday the Office of National Statistics suggested that age does not affect the likelihood of being infected. Today we heard that there are cases where children do act as the index case.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “There are concerns which need to be addressed, particularly around the fact that the Government’s plan involves a significant increase of children in primary schools from June 1, with a focus on bringing in young age groups for whom social distancing is most difficult.
“We are asking questions about the science which underpins this approach on behalf of our members, their staff, parents and pupils. It is vital that school communities have confidence that it is safe to return.”
In Liverpool, only the children of key workers and vulnerable children will be allowed in school from June 1, the city council confirmed on Friday.
But some schools across England have already committed to reopening next month – if the Government goes ahead with its plans.
They have been looking at introducing one-way systems, half days, and staggered lunches in a bid to keep young children apart.
Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Trust, which has 35 primary schools across the country, told PA that it is “common sense” for pupils to return to school, especially for children from lower-income families who see it as a place of “security and safety”.
Speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference, deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said the likelihood of anyone having coronavirus in a primary school was very small and diminishing.
“If currently we have, say, two or three in a thousand of our population with infection, in the proposed time frame coming forward in the next couple of weeks that’s likely to halve,” she said.
“There’s a lot of anxiety I think around this but people need to think through in an average infant school with 100 children, the likelihood of anybody having this disease is very small and diminishing with time, so I think we just need to keep that in perspective.”
She added: “Children who have been invited back to school are at key points of their education and their longer-term health risks of not getting good, basic education, which then takes them into work, employment in adult life and gives them a prevention opportunity from long-term conditions is really very important.”
Mr Williamson has welcomed efforts by many schools to prepare for reopening next month.
He said: “Getting children back to school is vital for their educational development and many schools are already taking steps to welcome back their pupils. I am grateful for their support.”
Mr Williamson added: “I want to reassure parents and families that we are giving schools, nurseries and other providers all the guidance and support they will need to welcome more children back in a phased way and no earlier than June 1.
“That’s why we have engaged closely with stakeholders from across the sector throughout the past seven weeks, including the trade unions, and today we arranged a detailed briefing for them with the scientific and medical experts.”