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Reopening schools prematurely could lead to covid-19 spike, teaching unions warn

PUBLISHED: 16:31 05 May 2020 | UPDATED: 16:31 05 May 2020

School closures had the greatest association with a subsequent reduction in the spread of covid-19 the UEA study found. Picture: Tim Goode/PA Images

School closures had the greatest association with a subsequent reduction in the spread of covid-19 the UEA study found. Picture: Tim Goode/PA Images

PA Wire/PA Images

Reopening schools prematurely could risk creating a spike in the transmission of Covid-19, teaching unions have warned.

The general secretaries of 10 trade unions across the UK and Ireland have written to the education ministers in all five jurisdictions urging “significant caution in any consideration of reopening schools”.

The letter, sent by the British and Irish Group of Teachers’ Unions (BIGTU) on behalf of teachers, warns of the “very real risk of creating a spike in the transmission of the virus by a premature opening of schools”.

It says: “We are convinced by the experience of other systems that a critical tool in preventing a surge of infection is an established capacity to ‘test, trace and isolate’ and we would argue that reopening schools before such a regime is in place would be catastrophic to the rate of infection.”

Students walk between social distance markers on stairs. Picture: APStudents walk between social distance markers on stairs. Picture: AP

MORE: Schools will reopen in ‘phased manner’, but not over summer holidays

Prime minister Boris Johnson promised to deliver a “comprehensive plan” this week on how the UK lockdown may be eased and suggested that he would set out efforts to get children back to school.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said schools in England are set to reopen in a “phased manner” after the lockdown but he has yet to set a date.

The coalition of union leaders argues that schools can only reopen and operate safely if there are “significant operational changes” in place to ensure effective social distancing, as well as strong hygiene routines and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) where required.

Children comply with social distancing rules while attending a school. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA WireChildren comply with social distancing rules while attending a school. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

“We would urge that the initial focus when schools reopen, in any capacity, should be on the health, wellbeing, and emotional resilience of our students,” it adds.

Norfolk headteachers have said there could be practical difficulties and that social distancing dozens of children was not feasible.

Dr Roger Harris, executive headteacher of North Walsham High School, said: “I would love the kids to be back as soon as possible but not at the risk to the health of our staff, parents and pupils. I’m led by the government direction.”

Chris Snudden, director of learning and inclusion for Norfolk children’s services, praised the work of education staff, and said: “When schools do fully reopen there needs to be a plan.”

MORE: Nearly quarter of parents ‘have not done any home education’ amid lockdown

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the teaching union NASUWT, one of the signatories of the letter, said: “Any decision to partially or fully reopen schools and colleges must be guided by the same overriding public health interest.

“Teachers, support staff, pupils and their families must not be used as an experiment and it would be reckless for any government to ignore the scientific evidence and thereby endanger lives.”

A DfE spokesman said: “We are also working closely with the sector as we consider how to reopen schools, nurseries and colleges and will ensure everyone has sufficient notice to plan and prepare.”

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