Government plans to keep some primary schools open while others “just down the road” remain closed have come under fire for having “no logic”.
Labour, local council leaders and teaching unions have all lined up to attack the proposals to start term time after the Christmas break, amid confusion about why some areas were having to send pupils back to the classroom despite surging cases.
Up to a million primary school pupils in some of the areas worst affected by coronavirus will not return next week as the government tries to tackle the outbreak, which is thought to be driven by the more transmissible variant of the virus.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said he wanted all schools to reopen as soon as possible but the government was being guided by data from areas showing high COVID-19 cases and hospital pressures.
Danny Thorpe, leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich in London, said the city had been treated as a whole during the pandemic, entering restrictions as one to reflect how residents regularly travel between boroughs.
His council was threatened with legal action by the government after it issued advice to schools about moving to online learning late last term.
He said in a statement: “In a case-by-case comparison, there appears to be no logic to how this list was brought together.
“Kensington and Chelsea has one of the lowest infection rates for the whole of the capital, yet their children and young people are being afforded the extra protection that apparently Royal Greenwich students don’t need.
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“While we are very glad that they will benefit from these extra precautions, we can only speculate why this borough was included, yet with an infection rate more than 200 cases higher per 100,000, Royal Greenwich was not.”
Islington Council leader Richard Watts said he was “seeking urgent clarification” why its primary schools were set to reopen while others weren’t.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said he believed it was right to hold off school reopenings in the worst-hit areas, but added that “it will be very confusing for parents that some primaries will be open but others just down the road won’t”.
Other parts where primary schools are not expected to reopen next week are in Essex, Kent, East Sussex, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.
Children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters will still be able to go to lessons.
Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said Williamson should “apologise to parents, and outline his plans to keep pupils learning and support parents”.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “With warnings from eminent scientists of an ‘imminent catastrophe’ unless the whole of the UK is locked down, and with more cases in hospitals than ever before and our NHS facing an enormous crisis the secretary of state is sending the majority of primary pupils and staff back on Monday to working environments which aren’t COVID secure.”
Williamson said on Thursday morning that more than 85% of schools would return next week, and the government has repeatedly stressed the importance of getting children back into classrooms.
He said on Sky News: “The work that was done with the Department of Health, who identified areas where it was either a very high rate or, using their latest data, were seeing very sharp increases in the number of cases – or equally the pressures on hospitals in that area and the clinical needs.
“These were all the considerations that were taken into account but what I want to say, and this will come as no surprise to you whatsoever, I want to see schools, any school, that’s closed for those first two weeks, opening at the earliest possible opportunity.”
He said “none of us” would have expected to take this kind of action without the new coronavirus variant emerging.
“It’s not what any of us would want to do, it’s not a decision that any of us would be wanting to have to implement, but we’ve had to do that because circumstances have dictated it,” he added.
The minister has said £78m in extra funding will go towards personal protective equipment and military support for mass testing programmes.
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