Unions criticise ‘inconclusive’ scientific evidence behind school reopening plan

Teachers’ unions are calling on the Government to explain how it is safe for children and staff to return to schools in England next month following its publication of scientific evidence.

One union leader accused Boris Johnson of taking a “cavalier attitude” towards children, while another union called the scientific advice “inconclusive”.

The remarks come after the Government published documents from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on Friday.

The papers do not include scientific modelling for the proposal for schools to bring back children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6, as well as introduce “face-to-face” support for Years 10 and 12, from June.

One of the documents says the evidence on how likely children are to transmit Covid-19 remains “inconclusive” – but the balance of evidence suggests that it may be lower than in adults.

Teachers do not appear to be at a significant increased risk if schools reopen, scientific advisers have suggested, although there is still a chance they can transmit Covid-19 when they return to work.

The publication of the Sage papers – used to inform proposals to reopen schools in England – comes after education unions, council leaders and MPs demanded to see the scientific evidence underpinning proposals to send pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 back to school from as early as June 1.

But following their publication, the school leaders’ union NAHT has written to the Education Secretary urging the Government to explain why reopening next month is a “wise thing to do”.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “Today, two months since lockdown was introduced, the Government has finally granted access to some of the scientific modelling behind its proposal for schools to open more widely from June 1.

“We are surprised that the wider opening of schools proposed by Boris Johnson has not been modelled by Sage. This points to a cavalier attitude towards the nation’s children. The fact of the matter is that Sage has only weak evidence as to what extent children can transmit the virus to others.”

Dr Bousted added: “It remains the case that the National Education Union does not yet think it safe for the wider opening of schools.”

Coronavirus – Tue Apr 28, 2020
The children of key workers comply with social distancing rules while attending a hub school in Edinburgh (Jane Barlow/PA)

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, added: “The evidence presented by Sage in terms of justifying the decision by Government to start to reopen schools from June 1 is inconclusive.”

He added: “The Sage papers published today will only add to teachers’ uncertainty and anxiety.

“The NASUWT remains of the view that no school should reopen until it can be demonstrated that it is safe to do so.”

It comes after a survey from Unison suggests only 2% of school support staff felt reassured by the Government’s recent messaging that schools in England will be safe to reopen from next month.

Wider contextual issues – including whether families have black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) members – should be taken into account when assessing the impact of relaxing school closures on transmission, the advice from Sage suggests.

The documents from Sage suggest that younger teachers’ attendance in schools could be prioritised in order to decrease the likelihood of infection for school staff in more vulnerable groups.

But reporters were told during a briefing that the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows that there is not a significant increased risk of transmission among teachers than in other professions.

It comes as a separate scientific review of global studies, led by University College London (UCL), has suggested that children and young people could be half as likely to catch coronavirus than adults.

Researchers found those aged under 20 had 56% lower odds of catching Sars-CoV-2, the official name of the coronavirus which causes the disease Covid-19, from an infected person.

But the review of global test and tracing and population screening studies said evidence “remains weak” on how likely children are to transmit the virus to others.

With just 10 days to go until schools could reopen more widely, ministers have come under pressure to reconsider their plans to send more children back to primary school next month.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said: “Support for a fixed date for school return is vanishing quickly. What is needed now is local flexibility to determine when it is right for schools to open up to more pupils, informed by evidence of what is happening in their own local area.

“We have never expected certainty, all we have asked for is clarity. The publication of the evidence being used to inform the Government’s decision making is an important step in achieving greater transparency.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It will quickly become clear to anybody reading the papers that the science is not definitive, and indeed, it cannot be in a situation where we are dealing with a new virus which is not fully understood.

“So, this is about making the best judgments on the basis of what is known, and exercising the utmost caution about how we proceed.

“This means the Government must be able to show very clearly that its five tests have been met before it gives the green light to any wider opening from June 1, and it must then be flexible about the timescale and approaches needed to bring in eligible pupils.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “The papers published by Sage today show that the phased, cautious return of a limited number of pupils to classrooms has been a carefully considered decision based on the best scientific and medical advice.

“My department continues to engage with the school, college and nursery sectors and I am enormously grateful for all the planning and preparation they are doing, alongside local authorities and academy trusts.

“The welfare of children remains at the very heart of everything we are doing because being able to be back in school will benefit not just their education but also their wellbeing.”

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