Teachers’ union urges Johnson to begin school closures

The largest education union in Europe has demanded the Prime Minister closes schools “at least for some time and at least in some areas” due to 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.

Boris Johnson stopped short of announcing school closures on Monday as he unveiled unprecedented peacetime measures to try to control the spread of Covid-19.

NEU joint general secretaries Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney said there was an “apparent contradiction” between banning mass gatherings and keeping schools open, in a letter to Mr Johnson on Tuesday.

They 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.

“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.”

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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.”

It comes after the NASUWT, which represents teachers and head teachers, 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.

“The NASUWT has to date been advising our members in the context of the advice issued by governments and administrations and public health bodies across the UK.

“However, the lack of clear information with regard to the steps to protect teachers, head teachers and other staff working in schools in the context of commentators constantly referring to the threats posed by children carrying Covid-19 is causing chaos and confusion and placing intolerable pressure on all staff in schools and their families.”

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.”

Do you have questions about Coronavirus in an education setting?

You can contact our helpline, which offers guidance for anyone with education related questions – from early years up to universities, plus parents. #Coronavirus#covidー19ukpic.twitter.com/cWCUEjP7SR

— Department for Education (@educationgovuk) March 16, 2020

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.”

It comes after unions representing teachers – who met Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on Monday – warned it was “likely” a number of schools will be forced to close due to a lack of staff.

The Association of School and College Leaders, the NAHT school leaders’ union and the Confederation of School Trusts held talks with Mr Williamson to discuss the implications of schools being closed and exams being postponed due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

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