Teaching unions say they are willing to work with the government to begin reopening schools in England as long as it can be done safely, amid concerns about a renewed coronavirus outbreak.
The debate over Boris Johnson’s decision to return millions of primary pupils to classrooms on 1 June has grown increasingly acrimonious after the British Medical Association (BMA) backed teaching unions who said the government was moving too quickly.
Pressure on the unions increased after the children’s commissioner for England called on the two sides to “stop squabbling” and agree on a plan. Anne Longfield said she was in “despair” at the increasingly entrenched positions being taken by the two sides, and that the interests of children were being ignored.
However, Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT union, said members supported schools reopening provided they could be made “Covid secure” and it would not put public health at risk.
Discussions between unions and government scientific advisers took place on Friday. However, the meeting was inconclusive and critics of the government’s plan said it raised more questions than answers.
Roach said teachers needed unequivocal guidance from the government that there would be strong controls in place that would satisfy both teachers and parents that it was safe to return.
“We are continuing to say to government but also to schools and employers, that we are here, we want to work with those employers to put plans in place to see whether schools can be ready for reopening from 1 June,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We want schools to be reopened, we want children to be safe and we want staff to be safe. It is not a zero-sum game here. It is about ensuring that we get back to a place where we can return to some form of normality.”
Longfield said that until a vaccine was found there would have to be a managed approach to risk. “My worry within all that is that the needs of children and the best interests of children are disappearing from view,” she told Today.
“There are really strong reasons why children need to get back into school. It is really imperative to see the can-do willingness to work together that we have seen in other parts of society.
“None of us want to put children, or indeed staff or parents, into any kind of situation that is unsafe. But until we get a vaccine we are going to have to be managing risk.”
Prof Sir Mark Walport, the chief executive of UK Research and Innovation and a former government chief scientific adviser, said ministers were taking a cautious approach and that a similar phased reopening in Denmark had not led to an increase in the transmission rate of the disease.
“It is very harmful for children and complicated for families if their children aren’t in school,” he told Today. “It is clear that although children do get infected – and the evidence is that they are infected probably as often as older people – nevertheless they show less symptoms and almost certainly transmit less than older people.
“Class sizes are being kept low, not all school years are going back, so it is being done in a very cautious fashion.”
Meanwhile, another English council has publicly stated it would oppose the government’s timetable. Hartlepool borough council said: “Given that coronavirus cases locally continue to rise, the council has been working with schools and we have agreed they will not reopen on Monday 1 June.
“While we recognise the importance of schools reopening, we want to be absolutely clear that we will be taking a measured and cautious approach to this. We continue to work with schools to put in place appropriate measures to help keep children and staff safe when a phased reopening is possible.”
Hartlepool’s statement followed confirmation that Liverpool’s schools would only be open to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers on 1 June.
The BMA, the UK’s largest doctors’ union, said in a letter to the National Education Union on Friday that the number of coronavirus infections remained too high to allow them to run safely. Teaching unions had been “absolutely right” to urge caution and prioritise testing before reopening schools on 1 June, it said.
“We cannot risk a second spike or take actions which would increase the spread of this virus, particularly as we see sustained rates of infection across the UK,” the BMA council’s chair, Chaand Nagpaul, said in the letter to his NEU counterpart, Kevin Courtney.