With more than 50,000 new Covid infections – the highest number ever – reported on Tuesday alone, there is significant pressure on the government to keep schools closed when term starts on Monday.
The TES reported on Tuesday that ministers had agreed another week of closures after the end of the Christmas break for all secondary school pupils, with the exception of those classed as vulnerable or the children of key workers.
But the government has continued to insist that its original staggered return plan, set out before the Christmas holidays, is still in full effect, with the Department for Education (DfE) refusing to confirm whether the TES’ report was correct.
Here’s what those in the know have said so far.
What the scientists say
According to reports on Monday, the government’s own scientific advisors have urged Boris Johnson to keep schools closed through January in order to keep Covid infections from spiralling even further.
As Politico reports, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) met last week with ministers to warn that keeping schools open would result in a rising R (reproduction) number for the virus, even if a third lockdown – similar to the one implemented in November – were to be introduced.
The closure of schools could force the R number below 1, the scientists reportedly said, taming the soaring infection levels.
Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at UCL and a member of the government advisory committee Nervtag (new and emerging respiratory virus threats) told BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday morning: “From a purely epidemiological point of view then it makes a lot of sense to keep schools closed for longer and introduce more stringent testing in them.
“Unfortunately, what we’ve failed to do is address the digital divide amongst schoolchildren such that the opportunity to provide high-quality online education for the poorest parts of the communities has been lost.
“So I think we’re going to have to get schools back, maybe a little bit later, but we’re going to have to have increased strict restrictions in other areas of society to pay for that.”
What ministers say
When it comes to plans for school reopening, the government has been very careful not to hint at anything that could suggest schools may remain closed for longer than is currently planned.
As of Tuesday, Downing Street has said it is “still planning for a staggered opening of schools” after Christmas but is keeping the plan under “constant review”.
The PM’s official spokesperson told a Westminster briefing: “We’re still planning for a staggered opening of schools and we are working to ensure testing is in place.
“As we have said throughout the pandemic, we obviously keep all measures under constant review.”
Conservative MP Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, said he “hope[d] very much” that schools would reopen from Monday, but called on Johnson to “set out a long-term plan for education” and end confusion about the future of schooling during the pandemic.
He told Good Morning Britain: “I would welcome a statement either from the prime minister or the chief medical officer as to what the scientific evidence is, and also to set out a long-term plan for education – a route map out of this – because we can’t have schools as a revolving door, with parents, the teaching profession and support staff not knowing from one day to the next what is going to happen.”
Cabinet minister Michael Gove insisted on Monday that he was “confident” the staggered return to schools would go ahead as of January 4.
He told BBC Radio 4: “It is our intention to make sure we can get children back to school as early as possible.”
“We have a new strain and it is also the case that we have also had, albeit in a very limited way, Christmas mixing, so we do have to remain vigilant,” he added.
“We are confident that we will be able to get schools back in good order. Our plan and our timetable is there, and we are working with teachers to deliver it.”
What teachers say
Jon Richards, Unison head of education, said: “It’s clearly important for schools and colleges to be open but that has to be weighed against the rapid spread of infection, particularly in schools.
“Mass testing of staff and pupils has been rushed and schools are struggling to cope with demand.
“It makes sense that schools should move online for at least the first fortnight of term, to enable proper plans for mass testing to be put in place.”
Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretaries of the National Education Union (NEU), have also written to education secretary Gavin Williamson, as well as the PM, reiterating calls for schools and colleges to remain closed for at least the first two weeks of January, except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.
Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis, one of the largest multi-academy trusts in England, also suggested delayed reopening.
He told the Radio 4 Today programme: “We would suggest a week or two’s delay to think it through, to do it well – and we think that if you really care about kids you would do this well. To invest now, to give time now, makes sense.”
Meanwhile, Chris Foley, headteacher at St Monica’s RC High School in Prestwich, Manchester, said there is “huge challenge getting the balance right between supporting pupils’ wellbeing and reducing community transmission”.
He told the PA news agency: “We do feel that we want our school to be open, and we are equally concerned by the impact of uncertainty on the pupils.
“We have wonderful Year 11 pupils who just want to get on with their studies, take their exams and then move on to the next stage of their life.
“The disconnect between national policy and then the delivery of policy directives at a school level has been the most challenging part of this, to be honest.”
What is going on with the testing programme in schools?
In a statement put out by the DfE on December 17, announcing the testing plans and the delayed start to term for most secondary school pupils, the armed forces were mentioned only once.
The relevant part of the press release read: “Armed forces personnel will support directly through planning with schools and colleges.”
No further details were given, with more specific plans promised in the rollout of advice to schools during the first week of the Christmas holidays.
On Tuesday it emerged that this “support” would be largely remote, with just 1,500 members of the armed forces made available for the operation. According to the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), there are almost 3,500 state secondary schools in England.
Rather than being situated in schools themselves, the government press release on armed forces involvement states that the “majority” of personnel will “form local response teams, providing support and phone advice to institutions needing guidance on the testing process and set-up of the testing facilities”.
This “support” will be offered “predominantly through webinars and individual meetings, but teams will also be on standby to deploy at short notice to provide in-person support to resolve any issues in the situations where testing would otherwise not be able to go ahead”.
HuffPost UK asked the DfE at what point a school would become eligible for in-person support, but no direct response was given.
HuffPost UK also asked the DfE for an estimate of how long it expected testing each class to take.
A spokesperson did not answer the question, instead pointing to the existing guidance which states that all school or college staff would have routine weekly testing with pupils offered “serial testing” for seven days if a close contact tested positive for Covid.
As the handbook of testing guidance sent out to schools sets out, most pupils are expected to self-administer the swab itself, but six “workforce roles” have been set out, including a team leader, test assistant, processor and cleaner.
While the handbook states that roles can be fulfilled by paid agency workers or volunteers, teachers have repeatedly voiced concerns that responsibility for testing programmes will fall to them despite huge existing demands on their time.