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Boris Johnson should “step back” from his June 1 return date for schools amid continuing safety fears, an alliance of education trade unions has warned.
In a strongly worded joint statement, the GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, Unison and Unite said that school staff appeared to be the only workers in the country who would not be protected by social distancing rules under government plans.
And they warned that classrooms of youngsters could “become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread”.
The PM stressed this week that his “ambition” was for all primary pupils to get a month’s lessons before summer, with reception, Year 1 and Year 6 children the first to go back. Key pre-GSCE and A-level years at secondary school would also get classroom time.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson published new guidelines on Monday night for a phased return for pupils, including halving class sizes to 15 children each.
Answering an urgent Commons question, Williamson hit back at “scaremongering” and said that the poorest pupils would suffer the most if they were not allowed to catch up on learning lost during the lockdown.
He also stressed he was acting on the advice of scientific and medical experts o the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
The joint union statement - sent out through the TUC - warned: “We call on the government to step back from June 1 and work with us to create the conditions for a safe return to schools based on the principles and tests we have set out.
“We all want schools to reopen, but that should only happen when it is safe to do so. The government is showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools, and outwards from schools to parents, sibling and relatives, and to the wider community.
“Uniquely, it appears, school staff will not be protected by social distancing rules. Fifteen children in a class, combined with their very young age, means that classrooms of four- and five-year olds could become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread.
“While we know that children generally have mild symptoms, we do not know enough about whether they can transmit the disease to adults. We do not think that the government should be posing this level of risk to our society.”
The alliance of unions wrote to Williamson last week that demanding no increase in pupil numbers “until full rollout of a national test and trace scheme”.
It also wanted an assessment of the specific needs of vulnerable students and poorer families facing economic disadvantage, and called for extra cash for school cleaning and PPE.
Under government plans, smaller class sizes will be accompanied by staggered lunch breaks as well as drop-off and pick-up times to reduce mixing of parents.
In the Commons, Williamson was told by Labour MP Mary Foy that “the education unions are clear” that safety must come first, as she attacked the plans as “ill thought out and reckless”.
“At worst, the proposals will set off a chain of new infections back into the households of working people. How can it be right, that without any scientific evidence, school staff and their pupils have to accept lower safety standards than you expect queuing at Tescos?”
The education secretary replied: “Scaremongering and making people fear is really unfair and not a welcome pressure that is to be placed on families, children and teachers alike.”
“When you have medical and scientific advice that is saying this is the right time to start bringing schools back in a phased and controlled manner, it seems only the right thing to do and the only responsible thing to do.
“The reason that we are bringing schools back is that we know that children benefit from being educated by their brilliant teachers in front of them. We recognise that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are the ones who are going to suffer the most if we do not bring schools back when we are able to do so.”
But shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey accused him of trying to “scramble to implement an unrealistic plan by a specific date” and warned that PPE for staff was crucial because social stancing will be “virtually impossible” for younger children.
For the first time, Williamson gave more detail about how secondary pupils facing GSCEs and A-levels next year would get “some time with their teachers” before the summer break. He did not mention a return to full lessons, only consultations about work plans.
The government wanted Years 10 and 12 to “have the opportunity to go into school to speak with their teachers ]and] their teachers make an assessment of what learning and support that they need to have over the following weeks as we approach the summer holidays”.
“It is important to get these transition years back into schools, even if it is for a not for a full timetable.”
Williamson also signalled that schools could open in the summer to admit teams of volunteers - including retired and former teachers - to help with ‘catch-up’ provision for pupils.
Asked by education commitee chairman Rob Halfon about the idea, he replied there were many thousands of such volunteers and “we’re very closely looking at such schemes - working with schools, working with the sector - as to how we can make that available to them”.
Paul Whiteman of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) warned this week that the timetable was “wildly optimistic to the point of being irresponsible” because of uncertainty over social distancing and protective equipment for teachers and other staff.
Whiteman revealed to MPs on Tuesday that he had not been consulted about the June return date and warned that new guidance suggesting class sizes of 15 pupils would not work for “very many” schools.