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Gavin Williamson says plans to reopen schools as part of the easing of lockdown are based on “the best scientific advice”, after councils and teaching unions criticised the move.
The education secretary told the daily Downing Street press conference on coronavirus “children are at the heart of everything we do” and said many would stand to lose out if schools remained closed for longer.
He added: “I know lots of you will be worried about sending your children to school. Every one of us wants the very best for our children and I know how stressful this time has been for families across the country.”
Williamson said the government’s plan to begin a phased return from June 1 for young primary school pupils, as well as secondary pupils in years 10 and 12, was “in line” with steps taken by other European countries.
But teaching unions, as well as some local authorities and city mayors, said ministers were moving too quickly and putting staff and students at risk.
Williamson said: “There is a consequence to this, the longer that schools are closed the more that children miss out.
“Teachers know that there are children out there that have not spoken or played with another child their own age for the last two months.
“They know there are children from difficult or very unhappy homes for whom school is the happiest moment in their week, and it’s also the safest place for them to be.”
Regarding testing and tracing, the cabinet minister added: “School staff can already be tested for the virus, but from the first of June we’ll extend that to cover children and their families if any of them develop symptoms.
“Together these measures will create an inherently safer system where the risk of transmission is substantially reduced for children, their teachers and also their families.”
Williamson said a “hierarchy of controls” has been set up, including people staying at home if they have coronavirus symptoms and that there are proper hand-washing, hygiene plus cleaning systems within schools.
He said minimising contact and mixing is a “key element” of what needs to be done, adding: “That is why we have gone in this initial stage of much-reduced sizes down to a maximum of 15.
“We have looked all across Europe to see how this best works. We have seen some good examples in nations such as Denmark where it seems to have worked very well.”
He added: “We are creating a protective bubble around them, reducing the amount of mixing and making sure that those small groups stay together almost like a family within a classroom.”
Asked why the government is not taking a regional approach to the reopening of schools, which could take account of local differences in infection rates, Williamson said it was being done in “a very, very cautious and phased way”.
He added: “If there are concerns about the R-rate, we will make sure we look at that in great detail and we will look at the rate of infection.”
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries, who joined Williamson at the press conference, said children are much less likely to be admitted to hospital with Covid-19, compared with older generations.
Williamson said ministers would be “carefully monitoring the impact of this first phase” of lockdown relaxation and that children would not return if the government’s “five key tests” are not met.
And there are currently no plans to begin the next school year earlier than September to allow children to catch up.
He said: “We are looking at different initiatives that we could maybe look at rolling out during the summer period.”
But he said he will not divulge more information on those initiatives yet, as there was “a little bit more work to do on them”.
“We are working with all teaching unions right across the sector to give everyone confidence about returning to school,” the education secretary added.
Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, said it was “urgently important that the government takes every available opportunity to provide the necessary assurances that teachers are seeking”.
He added in a statement: “It should not be forgotten that teachers have continued to look after vulnerable children and children of critical workers whilst also providing high quality support for remote learning for those children who are at home.
“Schools are looking to the government for clear and unequivocal guidance on the health and safety measures they will need to have in place prior to reopening.
“The bottom line is that no teacher or child should be expected to go into schools until it can be demonstrated that it is safe for them to do so.”