The government’s decision to keep schools open during November’s lockdown has drawn a strong response from both educationalists and the wider public.
Almost 370,000 people to date have signed a parliamentary petition calling for schools and colleges to be closed amid rising Covid-19 infection rates, while more than 150,000 teachers and support staff signed a separate petition by the National Education Union (NEU) in less than 48 hours, calling for an amendment to the lockdown bill so that it includes the closure of schools to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers.
The NEU cites figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), estimating that 1% of primary pupils and 2% of secondary pupils have the virus. According to NEU analysis of the numbers, these levels have grown exponentially since they returned to school in September, with infection rates now nine times higher among primary pupils and 50 times higher among those at secondary school.
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“The government is failing our communities as well as our schools and colleges, and that is why we are seeking an amendment to Parliament’s lockdown bill,” said Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU.
“We have seen a fifty-fold increase in infections in secondary schools alone since September. Schools, clearly, are an engine for virus transmission.”
The Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) is also calling for a change in government policy. On 2 November, the association spoke to the Department for Education and urged them to allow boarders in England to be allowed to return to their parents or guardians for exeats and weekends (for weekly boarders).
Following extensive conversations and lobbying, the BSA has issued another statement which says students who normally travel between their boarding school and home at the weekend will be allowed to do so.
Speaking to the wider issue, professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at University College London, Andrew Hayward, said that “it is clear that there is substantial transmission within secondary schools”.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he added that, while “children who are infected in schools are very unlikely to have severe consequences… one of the consequences of not closing secondary schools would be that we may need to be in lockdown for longer than we might otherwise have to be”.
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the Association of School and College Leaders have both offered qualified support for government policy.
The government is failing our communities as well as our schools and colleges – Kevin Courtney, NEU
“It is right to prioritise keeping pupils in school,” said Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary.
However, he added, “once again, there is considerable ambiguity about whether it is safe for those who are clinically vulnerable or extremely vulnerable to continue to work in a school. As infection rates increase across communities it is inevitable that more staff will be forced to isolate at home, making it increasingly likely that more schools will be forced to close for some or all pupils”.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), also back the decision to keep schools open, but added that, if transmission continues to rise, “particularly in secondary schools, then that may have to be revisited in the next four weeks in order to get R [the rate of reproduction] below one, and the epidemic shrinking”.
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