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School’s out: Delay in returning for secondary and many primary pupils due to surging COVID rates

Written by on 30 December 2020

The return of many schools will be delayed beyond the government’s earlier promise, the education secretary has announced.

Exam year students will return on 11 January, with other secondary school students to follow a week later on 18 January, to enable preparations for the testing of pupils and staff to take place.

And while the majority of primary schools will open as planned on 4 January, some primaries in areas with the highest rates of coronavirus will not open on that date, with no date of return set as yet.

This will include primaries in 22 London boroughs, which between them have more than half a million pupils, and many primaries in Essex and Kent and some in East Sussex, Buckinghamshire, and Hertfordshire.

But it does not include primaries in Greenwich, which was forced to back down in the face of government legal action in late December after saying it wanted to close schools before the end of the autumn term.

It appears that primary pupils in the affected areas will be expected to learn remotely.

The Department for Education has said their return to school will be reviewed in two weeks, on 13 January.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson has admitted the government may need to take “further action” in the worst affected areas.

Setting out a new plan in the House of Commons, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said schools up and down the country face a “rapidly changing situation”.

He told MPs: “The 1,500 military personnel committed to supporting schools and colleges will remain on task providing virtual training and advice on establishing the testing process with teams on standby to provide in-person support if required by schools.

“Testing will then begin the following week in earnest with those who are in exam years at the head of the queue.

“This is in preparation for the full return of all pupils in all year groups on January 18 in most areas.”

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PM announces more COVID-19 restrictions

The news comes just 24 hours after the government insisted it was pushing ahead with plans for primary school and older secondary school children to return to classrooms next week.

There had been demands for the post-Christmas return of pupils to be delayed – including from teaching unions – until later in January.

Scientists have advised that keeping schools and universities closed will dampen infection rates.

Teaching unions had also expressed concern after Mr Williamson outlined before Christmas plans to test staff and students from the first week of January.

At least one of them remained unimpressed.

Joint general secretary of the National Education Union Dr Mary Bousted said she was “astonished” at Mr Williamson’s announcement.

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‘We’ll know soon if vaccines reduce transmission’

She 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.

“The government has not, despite being repeatedly asked, published the scientific guidance on the risks involved in school and college reopening. This information is desperately needed – particularly as the new variants of the virus are 50% more transmissible.

“The government in Scotland will not reopen schools till 18 January at the earliest. The Government in Westminster should have done that at least.”

Cllr Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said she was also worried about how the plan to test pupils would be implemented.

She said: “We have continuing concerns about the operational logistics of testing in secondary schools and the challenges posed by this timetable.

“Ensuring there is a suitable number of staff and volunteers, identifying the number of stations needed and finding a safe space for students to wait for their results are all significant challenges. It is vital that the tests, PPE and other support being promised by the government is delivered on time and in the quantities needed.”

In the subsequent parliamentary debate, a number of questions about the government’s plans for schools went unanswered by Gavin Williamson.

He was asked how many primary schools in England will be forced to switch to remote learning next week, whether exams can go ahead in the summer and whether school staff will be prioritised in the latest vaccine roll out.

He did not provide clear responses on any of these issues, simply stressing that the government’s plans to roll out testing would enable schools to get pupils back into face-to-face learning as quickly as possible.