We all desperately want schools to reopen for the sake of children’s education and wellbeing, but we can only do this when it is genuinely safe for children and staff to return. It is important to get children back in the classroom, but just as important is ensuring the safety of staff, pupils and their families.
I am aware the National Education Union has provided five sensible tests to enable pupils to return to school in greater numbers and in the safest way possible. These involve lowering infection rates, a realistic plan for social distancing, comprehensive access to testing, a plan for when cases occur, and protection for vulnerable staff.
As things stand we are still in lockdown and Government advice is to continue to exercise social distancing and only leave home when necessary. On 22 May 2020, the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies stated that it believes that “decisions on school opening should be guided by evidence of low levels of COVID-19 infections in the community and the ability to rapidly respond to new infections through a local test, track and isolate strategy.” This suggests that it is not yet time for a blanket re-opening of all schools on 1 June.
However, every school is different and there will be individual factors that will affect each school’s ability to operate safely during the current pandemic. Some secondary schools, with modern buildings and slightly older children, may find it easier to operate with some degree of social distancing and other safety measures. Meanwhile, primary schools that are housed in older, Victorian buildings may find this far more difficult.
Given this, H&F Council takes the view that school governors and Headteachers are best placed to make the decision whether to reopen. They know the unique circumstances and context of their schools and they should make the decision based on their experience.
Nationally, it is in the interests of all those who will be affected by the wider opening of schools for the Government to be transparent about the advice on which it is acting and to act upon the concerns raised by parents, school staff and teaching unions.
I believe the Government must urgently convene a taskforce of education unions, parents organisations and health experts to agree upon a series of practical safety conditions that must be met within schools before the Government confirms a date for wider reopening and to confirm that test, track and trace will be fully operational.