‘Reckless’ full reopening of schools could risk Covid-19 spike, unions warn

Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

Reopening schools to all pupils in England at the same time could risk another spike in Covid-19 infections, a coalition of education unions and professional bodies has warned.

The Prime Minister should opt for a “phased return” of students to classrooms over a period of time, a statement from organisations representing school and college staff, leaders and governors has urged.

It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to set out his “road map” for easing the lockdown in England on Monday, with the aim of first reopening schools.

The joint statement – from the nine education organisations – says they are “increasingly concerned” that the Government could go ahead with a full return of all pupils on March 8.

“This would seem a reckless course of action. It could trigger another spike in Covid infections, prolong the disruption of education and risk throwing away the hard-won progress made in suppressing the virus over the course of the latest lockdown,” it warns.

The unions and professional bodies are calling on the Prime Minister to only commit to reopening schools on March 8 if the scientific evidence is “absolutely clear that it is safe” to admit more pupils.

They warn that the science around the role schools play in the overall rate of transmission is “uncertain”.

The joint statement is from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the NAHT school leaders’ union, the National Education Union (NEU), the NASUWT teachers’ union, the National Governance Association (NGA), the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA), Unison, Unite and GMB.

It says: “What we do know is that the full reopening of schools will bring nearly 10 million pupils and staff into circulation in England – close to one-fifth of the population. This is not a small easing of lockdown restrictions. It is a massive step.

“These factors necessitate a cautious approach with wider school and college opening phased over a period of time.”

The plea comes after an Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report called for a full return to school to be prioritised as they said a phased return could widen the gaps between children in different year groups.

On Monday, Mr Johnson said no decisions had been made on whether year groups across schools in England will return together, or whether primaries and secondaries could be staggered.

A Department for Education (DfE) spokeswoman said: “We know schools, parents and pupils need clarity on plans as soon as possible, which is why we have committed to providing two weeks’ notice for them to prepare.

“Schools are the best place for young people’s education, development and well-being, and we are committed to fully reopening them as soon as the public health picture allows.

“The Prime Minister is due to set out plans for schools reopening on February 22, and pupils will return from March 8 at the earliest.”

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