The news that all schools in England will be reopening for face-to-face learning from 8 March has drawn a mixed response from school leaders and union heads.
Yesterday’s [22 February] announcement came as pupils in Scotland and Wales began a phased return to the classroom, and there is concern that English schools fully reopening at once could markedly increase Covid-19 transmission.
There is also some disquiet at teaching staff not being prioritised for vaccinations, as well as the costs of Covid testing.
The following is a summary of the measures that will be in place when students return to face-to-face education:
- All secondary school and college students will take three Covid-19 tests at existing school testing facilities. Students will then be provided with two rapid tests to use each week at home
- Secondary school and college staff will also be provided with two weekly home tests
- Primary school staff will continue to take two rapid tests each week at home
- As a ‘temporary extra measure’ staff and students in secondary schools and colleges are advised to wear face coverings in all areas, including classrooms, where social distancing cannot be maintained
- Public Health England advises that the existing range of safety measures should be continued, including bubble groups, staggering start and finish times, increasing ventilation and hygiene, and maintaining distance between adults where possible
“The reopening of education settings to all is being prioritised due to the significant and proven impact caused by being out of school to the mental and physical health and wellbeing of children and young people,” said the Department for Education.
Dr Simon Hyde, general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), said: “The prime minister’s decision to welcome all pupils in England back to school is welcome. As the government has repeatedly advised, schools themselves are safe places for pupils and staff.”
Hailing the efforts and “public spirit” of staff and students in making schools safe Hyde added: “It remains a disappointment that, despite the excellent partnership work undertaken by HMC schools, the government remains unwilling to contribute to our testing administrative costs on the same basis as state schools. Test and trace is a public health measure designed to protect us all and it should be funded equitably.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, was also critical of the funding plans: “Safety measures will continue to be a feature of school life for many months, so the government must meet the costs of these extra measures in full and not expect them to be paid from existing budgets.
“The government must prioritise all school staff for vaccination. Not only would vaccination help protect staff, but it should also reduce the need for further disruption to pupils’ education.”
That view was strongly backed by Jane Thorpe, head of Swanbourne House School, who tweeted: ‘Thrilled that we will be getting all of our pupils back on 8 March. Outraged that school staff are not being prioritised for vaccinations. They will now be risking their and their families’ health unnecessarily. Poor and illogical decision given the roadmap.’
The stiffest criticism of the plans for reopening came from Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, who had earlier argued that testing pupils three times before allowing them to return “simply won’t be possible”.
“Boris Johnson has, despite all his words of caution, failed to learn the lessons of his previous mistakes,” she said of the announcement on reopening.
“It remains the case, unfortunately, that cases [of Covid] are three times higher now than when schools re-opened last September. This fact alone should have induced caution rather than, in the words of Nadhim Zahawi, an ‘ambitious’ school return which runs the risk of schools, once again, becoming, in the prime minister’s words on 4 January, ‘vector of transmission’ into the community. This risk is greatly elevated because of the new variants of Covid which are significantly more transmissive.”
A more cautious, phased approach, she said, would allow an assessment of the impact on transmission rates, and she called on the government to reveal the scientific data and modelling informing their “unique” school return plan.
“A ‘big bang’ school reopening brings 10 million people back into crowded buildings with no social distancing and inadequate ventilation. The wearing of face masks by pupils and staff in secondary school lessons is a welcome measure but it is not, on its own, enough. The government has had two months to put extra mitigations in place to stop the growth in infection in schools and colleges that was seen from September to December.
“Where are the ventilation units for classrooms? Where are the Nightingale classrooms? Where is the PHE testing which school leaders could rely upon to give more accurate results? It is no good political parties talking about these safeguards when they know very well that they have not been put in place and will not be put in place by 8 March. Words are cheap. Actions are needed.”
In other news: IB exams cancelled in the UK