Fears about the risks of transmission of Covid-19 have been raised amid reports that more than half of pupils are on site in some primary schools.
Boris Johnson warned that schools may act as “vectors for transmission” causing the virus to spread between households when he announced that pupils in schools and colleges – except children of key workers and vulnerable pupils – would learn remotely until mid-February during the lockdown.
But despite the stricter measures being imposed, primary schools in England are seeing a high demand for places – with one heads’ union reporting that some have had 70% of their families requesting on-site provision.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “We’re increasingly concerned about the sheer demand for key worker and vulnerable pupil places this week.
“Our members are telling us that demand for places is much higher than it was during the first lockdown last spring. We’ve heard stories of some schools having 50-70% in.
“This could seriously undermine the impact of lockdown measures, and may even run the risk of extending school closures.”
He added that it was critical that school places are only taken up by parents “when absolutely necessary” in order to stem the spread of the virus.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Mr Whiteman warned that opening up the access to schools further works against the Government’s “safety measure”.
The NAHT and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) are both calling on the Government to provide guidance on the maximum safe number of children that there should be in school at once.
ASCL – which is also calling for clarity on how schools should prioritise places if they are over this limit – has warned that the demand for places in primary schools has created a “public health concern”.
Addressing the House of Commons on Wednesday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that only one parent needs to be a critical worker to access a school place in the lockdown.
But Norfolk County Council has said it is working with education leaders in the region to develop a prioritisation criteria for school places after many families have requested places during the lockdown.
The council said it is likely that in some schools this will mean both parents are expected to be key workers, with priority given to those whose parents work in emergency life-saving services.
On the situation facing school leaders across the country, Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, told the PA news agency: “We are receiving reports of very high demand for places for the children of key workers in primary schools resulting in 50% or more of children being on site in some schools.”
On Wednesday, Mr Williamson also confirmed to MPs that children who do not have access to technology are seen as vulnerable and can attend school.
Government guidance says vulnerable children may include “pupils who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home (for example due to a lack of devices or quiet space to study)”.
On the definition of vulnerable children, Mr Barton told PA: “As remote education is rarely easy with young children this has the potential to lead to huge demand.
“This is creating a public health concern as the point of restricted opening is to reduce the number of contacts in order to suppress the risk of coronavirus transmission.
“In fact, we now seem to have ended up in a situation where there are very significant numbers of contacts in some schools.”
Mr Barton added that the surge in demand creates “serious logistical issues” for schools as it is difficult to provide face-to-face teaching to large numbers of children in school while also providing remote education to pupils at home.
On Wednesday, the Education Secretary warned that the schools watchdog will enforce legal requirements for state schools in England to provide high-quality remote education during the lockdown.
He said schools are expected to provide between three and five hours teaching a day – and if parents feel their child is not receiving enough learning they should complain to the school first, and then to Ofsted.