Education secretary Gavin Williamson has told Greenwich Council to keep schools open to all pupils or it will face legal action in a dramatic stand-off as coronavirus cases surge.
Schools in the south-east London borough were told to switch to remote learning for most pupils from Monday evening in a letter from council leader Danny Thorpe.
Three councils in London have now advised schools to move to online teaching following a pre-Christmas spike in Covid-19 infections.
Following in the footsteps of the local authority in Greenwich, both Islington and Waltham Forest councils recommended on Monday that schools should close their doors to all but vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.
Instead, classes should be taken online to avoid social interactions, council leaders said.
But on Monday evening, Williamson issued a temporary continuity direction to Greenwich demanding it withdraw letters to head teachers and parents.
The direction states it is enforceable by Williamson making an application to the High Court or the county court for an injunction if the council does not comply.
The education secretary said in a statement: “It is simply not in children’s best interests for schools in Greenwich, Islington or elsewhere to close their doors.”
He added: “I have always been clear that using legal powers is a last resort but continuity of education is a national priority. That’s why I won’t hesitate to do what is right for young people and have issued a direction to Greenwich Council setting out that they must withdraw the letter issued to headteachers on Sunday.
“The Regional Schools Commissioner will continue to work closely with Greenwich Council and schools in the borough, as we have done with schools across the country, to support them with any operational challenges they face and ensure children can continue to receive face-to-face education.”
Thorpe said the council was seeking legal advice and would respond to Mr Williamson on Tuesday morning.
The new advice came on the same day that health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed that the capital would move into the toughest tier 3 restrictions from Wednesday amid a surge in Covid-19 infections.
Data from the Greater London Authority published on Sunday showed that 17 out of 32 London boroughs recorded a seven-day infection rate that exceeded 200 cases per 100,000 people.
On Monday, mayor of London Sadiq Khan called on the government to consider telling all schools and colleges in the city to close early for Christmas and reopen later in January, “with extra resource provided to support online learning”.
But the prime minister’s official spokesman said that the government expected all schools and colleges to remain open until December 17.
“We’ve consistently said that not being in school has a detrimental impact on children’s learning as well as their own personal development and mental health,” he said.
“Which is why we expect all schools and colleges to remain open until the end of term on Thursday, as schools have remained open throughout the pandemic.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said it was a “national priority” that children “remain in school until the end of term”.
“Schools, colleges and early years settings across the country have worked tremendously hard to put protective measures in place that are helping reduce the risk of the virus being transmitted and our regional school commissioner teams continue to support local authorities and school trusts to remain open and help resolve any operational issues,” they said.
Labour leader Keir Starmer also urged leaders to try to keep schools open during the last week of term as he said closures are “difficult” for vulnerable children and can leave parents in the lurch.
But announcing the local authority’s decision to ask schools to close their doors to most pupils from Tuesday afternoon, Islington Council leader Richard Watts pointed to a “serious and very worrying rise in coronavirus across London”.
“This is a very difficult decision – however the public health situation in Islington and London is so serious that we have to do everything we can to stop this deadly virus spreading in our community and across London,” he said.
The council has advised schools to pivot to online learning until January 11 – a week after pupils would usually return to the classroom after Christmas.
Meanwhile Clare Coghill, leader of Waltham Forest Council, said “decisive action” was needed to control the spread of the virus in the borough.
After speaking to primary and secondary school headteachers, as well as teaching unions, the local authority has called for classes to move online “as soon as possible”.
“Each individual school will make their own decision and will contact parents to make arrangements for children’s continued learning this week,” Coghill said.
The move is likely to cause disruption for pupils, parents and guardians, she said. But this “emergency action” is needed ahead of people mixing with other households over Christmas, which makes the risk of infection “particularly high”.