UK teaching unions challenge government’s June 1 school reopening plans


A classroom is pictured, rearranged to provide a teaching environment safe from coronavirus for pupils and teachers at La Petite Ecole Bilingue at Kentish Town, north London, on May 20, 2020. (Photo: ISABEL INFANTES/AFP via Getty Images)
A classroom is pictured, rearranged to provide a teaching environment safe from coronavirus for pupils and teachers at La Petite Ecole Bilingue at Kentish Town, north London, on May 20, 2020. (Photo: ISABEL INFANTES/AFP via Getty Images)

BRITISH teaching unions on Friday (22) urged the government to reconsider plans to reopen schools on June 1, after the government released scientific advice on easing the coronavirus lockdown.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this month announced plans to begin a phased return of the youngest pupils as part of a slow easing of the nationwide stay-at-home orders.

But it has sparked concern among teachers and parents, as the death rate in Britain, at more than 36,000 already the highest in Europe, keeps rising by hundreds each day.

Newly published documents from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) say decisions on how reopening schools might impact the Covid-19 outbreak would hinge on how susceptible and infectious children were.

“Evidence remains inconclusive on both the susceptibility and infectivity of children, but the balance of evidence suggests that both may be lower than in adults,” it said.

Mary Bousted, joint head of the National Education Union, said June 1 was too soon and accused Johnson of a “cavalier attitude towards the nation’s children”.

“If we cannot be certain about the transmission of the virus — and it appears SAGE cannot, either — then it is only right to exercise caution,” she said.

Patrick Roach, head of the NASUWT teachers’ union, said the new evidence would “only add to teachers’ uncertainty and anxiety”.

A group of experts separate from the government, led by former chief scientist David King, on Friday said schools should not reopen until an effective local tracing system is in place.

“It is clear from the evidence we have collected that June 1st is simply too early to go back,” King said.

Johnson said this week he had “growing confidence” that a tracing scheme would be in place by June 1, but there remained questions over whether this is possible.

Several local authorities in England have said they were unlikely to be able to reopen schools by the start of next month.

Earlier this week, Johnson’s spokesman had said the government wanted to “work with teachers, head teachers and the unions in order to find a way to have a controlled and careful return of some year groups from June 1 at the earliest”.

On Friday, however, officials said the it was up to the schools to decide on reopening.

“Ultimately, it will be for the schools to decide whether they are ready for this and whether parents have confidence that they will send the children back,” Yvonne Doyle, medical director and director for health protection at Public Health England, told Parliament’s science committee.

“I am confident that some schools may already feel they are ready to open, others may not.”

Education is a devolved matter for the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The administration in Edinburgh said schools would go back part-time on August 11; the assembly in Cardiff has ruled out a June return; and the executive in Belfast has indicated a phased return from September.