Families were plunged into chaos last night as councils across the land defied Boris Johnson’s orders to reopen schools today.
The PM had insisted primary pupils return, despite soaring cases of Covid-19. But many local chiefs rebelled, fearing for the safety of staff and pupils, leaving parents with no time to make childcare arrangements.
One dad in Essex said: “It’s so frustrating for the parents.”
Keir Starmer demanded a national lockdown today to tackle surging cases.
Families were plunged into chaos a day before they were due to send kids back after local authorities and heads fearing for the safety of staff and pupils axed lessons in defiance of No 10’s rules.
The PM sparked further confusion by insisting most primaries will reopen today, but then declared they might have to close again as rates of infections skyrocket.
National Association of Head Teachers general secretary Paul Whiteman said: “The Government’s current guidance amounts to little more than ‘keep calm and carry on’ which is just not good enough when local infection rates and hospital admissions are soaring. We need to see much more transparency and honesty.”
National Education Union joint general secretary Mary Bousted accused Mr Johnson of a “dereliction of duty” over the latest shambles.
The PM told the Andrew Marr show on BBC1 kids should go back to school, apart from in London and parts of Kent where the Government has ordered heads to keep their doors closed due to the high number of cases.
But he warned: “It may be that we need to do things in the next few weeks that will be tougher in many parts of the country. I’m fully, fully reconciled to that.
“I’m sure all viewers and listeners will understand what the sort of things… clearly school closures, which we had to do in March is one of those things.”
In Essex, parents in some districts learned just before 4pm yesterday their kids’ schools were not reopening today.
The Tory-run county council ordered heads not to open until at least Wednesday while it “seeks urgent clarity from the Department for Education on the current position on primary schools reopening in North Essex, amid rising Covid-19 infection levels in the area”.
Schools in other parts of the county were already allowed to stay shut.
One local dad, who has two kids in primary school, said: “It’s so frustrating for the parents.” Kent county council chief Roger Gough urged Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to keep primaries that have not been ordered to shut closed.
Cumbria county council had appealed to the DfE to not reopen schools, but the plea was snubbed.
Leader Stewart Young said: “This is disappointing news and it is the wrong decision for Cumbria and our families and communities.”
Anlaby Primary School in Hull said it would not be opening today as planned after unions intervened.
Head Gareth May sent parent an email yesterday that read: “After the Government’s announcement of the new variant strain of Covid-19, you may be aware of the NEU and Unison positions on return to schools this week which is that staff and children should not be in schools.
“They have recommended to all their members they should not go into schools but should be available to provide online learning.”
Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned it was “massively risky to open schools when so many parts of the NHS are teetering on the brink”.
Mr Starmer said: “National restrictions need to come in the next 24 hours.
“Let’s not have the Prime Minister saying, ‘I’m going to do it, but not yet’. That’s the problem he has made so many times.
“Nationwide lockdown, the Prime Minister has hinted that that’s going to happen but he’s delaying again, and we can’t afford that again.
“I don’t want to call for the closure of schools tomorrow morning and add to the chaos. But we do need to recognise that it is inevitable that more schools will close, and we need a plan in place to deal with it.”
Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield said shutting schools should be a last resort.
She added: “If there have to be any closures at all it must be for the absolute minimum of time and that time must be used very well.”
Secondary schools are due to open next Monday. Primaries are also due to stagger re-openings.
But fears are growing that teachers may not be able to run mass-testing programmes for pupils.
Experts are also worried there will be a return of the chaos of home-schooling during the spring.
The National Foundation for Educational Research warned “schools simply won’t have had time to resolve” issues including sending enough computers to kids or helping the poorest who have limited space or technology to learn from home.
A cross-party group of politicians, campaigners and charities, including former PM Tony Blair, fear it will spark be a “digital divide” in education.
Johnson playing fast and loose with country’s health, says Mary Bousted, National Education Union joint secretary
By not properly considering the role schools and colleges play in transmission of the virus, with the R rate this high, Boris Johnson is playing fast and loose with people’s health and contributing to the spread of Covid.
The Prime Minister knows the scientific evidence points to the necessity for a period of school closures. We need learning provided online, at least for two weeks, except for key workers’ children and vulnerable students, then to check again.
Reports from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine from December 23, Sage papers released on the 31st and a report from Imperial College that day all reach the same conclusion: that it will not be possible to get R below 1 without at least a period of school closure. At the end of last term it was clear coronavirus rates were higher for primary and secondary children than for any other segment of the population.
Hospital admissions are going through the roof. Infection rates continue to rise. Yet Government is still ignoring the facts staring it in the face.
No one wishes for online learning – not school staff, pupils or parents. This is not the easy option. But keeping schools open will put at risk the recovery and health of the nation. For the Prime Minister to go against the scientific advice he is receiving, calling for a period of closure for schools and colleges, is a dereliction of duty to the country he was elected to serve.