Commenting on guidance issued today by the Department for Education, intended to prepare schools for full opening from September, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:
"We all want to see a full return for all pupils from September, but this must be safe, well-planned and in pupils' short-term and long-term interests. The litmus test for school leaders, teachers, support staff and parents alike will be a thought-through strategy that puts to bed any concerns over safety. The Government guidance today is unlikely to address these concerns.
"The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, speaking about the Leicester outbreak this week said that children can transmit the disease, a number of children have tested positive for the virus and where outbreaks occur schools will have to close.
"The Government has to be able to convince school staff that sufficient measures are in place to make it ‘Covid secure’ for them to work in a class of 30 or more children – with neither social distancing nor PPE, and often with poor ventilation. In secondary schools the difficulties multiply, because the Government guidelines suggest that a whole year group should be treated as ‘a bubble’, and that these year-group bubbles should be kept apart by staggering arrival times, breaks and lunch times. The practical difficulties involved in arranging this separation of year group bubbles are immense and will not be possible in many schools.
"The Government must, as a minimum, be able to show that Public Health England and SAGE are in complete agreement with them that when the guidelines are implemented in September, transmission networks can be managed and vulnerable staff kept safe. This will certainly depend on the case count being lower in September than it is now.
"The guidelines put an emphasis on test and trace, but parents, school leaders and teachers will be wondering 'where is it?' The NEU has been calling for track and trace since March. Boris Johnson promised a 'world beating' system by 1 June but has still not delivered anything like an adequate programme – the Government needs to be able to inspire confidence that track, trace and isolate will be capable of taking the load by September or we will see patterns of school closures like the one just announced in Leicester.
"We are concerned that the Government does not have a plan B if these guidelines do not work or if cases are higher by the time we get to September. That is why we have been arguing, via our 10-point Education Recovery Plan, for the Government to find extra classroom space, mobilise supply teachers, beginner teachers finishing college, and those colleagues who have left the profession. If the Government could build and staff the Nightingale hospitals then it should be able to build and staff Nightingale classrooms to ensure our children can get back to school.
"School leaders need clear guidance based on scientific evidence, but instead they are confronted by a Government which is rushing through ideas that seem more based on hope than on science. A poor plan, such as this one, risks failing children, parents and staff alike.
We need much clearer science as well as guidance that is grounded in reality, for the full return of all pupils to work. As ever, the National Education Union is ready to talk with Government to find a way forward."