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Union believes schools and colleges should remain closed until at least mid-January

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@NEUnion response to SAGE’S advice to Government to close schools 

KevinCourtney100x100Commenting Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:  

“SAGE have told the Government that they need to close schools to contain coronavirus and the Government have decided to ignore their advice. It is also clear from the SAGE documents that school pupils and school staff are infecting each other, and that school age children have the highest rates of infection. 

“On this basis we do not believe that it is safe for the community, pupils or school staff for schools and colleges to reopen on Monday. 

“We believe that schools and colleges should remain closed until mid-January at the earliest so that the Government can make an informed decision on the safety of reopening schools as SAGE advise.” 

Kate Green MP 100x100Kate Green MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said: 

“The Government cannot continue to hide from reality and must urgently publish the scientific advice on the return of schools. 

“Parents, pupils and staff are incredibly concerned about what will happen next week, with the Prime Minister governing through media leaks rather than evidence and clarity.  

“The Government has lost control of the virus and children’s education is suffering as a result. It’s time for the Prime Minister to own his mistakes and be honest about whether students can return to schools and colleges.” 

It is now clear that SAGE told ministers that they needed to close schools to contain coronavirus before Christmas.

They are so concerned about the new variant that they cannot be sure that measures like the Spring lockdown will be enough to get R below 1. 

Earlier this month (21 Dec) NEU wrote to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education calling for new measures to be put in place to ensure the safest possible return of schools and colleges on the 4th of January. 

With increasing infection rates and a new more easily transmitted strain of the virus the NEU letter called for:  

  • Online learning for the first two weeks of the Spring term except for key workers and vulnerable children to reduce cases amongst students and get testing set up. 
  • Directors of Public Health to set up a testing system to be in place that would enable all children to be tested prior to a return to person-to-person teaching.  
  • The 2-week period from the 4th of January to be used to begin vaccinating education staff alongside NHS and Care staff. 

Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green and Shadow Schools Minister Wes Streeting have also written (29 Dec) to Gavin Williamson urging him to provide answers for parents, students and staff. 

Their letter calls on the Government to: 

  • Urgently publish scientific evidence on the spread of the virus in schools and colleges and the risk this poses to students, staff and wider transmission within the community, including the new strain; 
  • Publish SAGE’s advice on the return of schools in January; 
  • Publish a credible plan to ensure every pupil not in school will be able to access high-quality remote learning; 
  • Confirm whether plans for mass testing will go ahead; 
  • Immediately clarify when school and college staff can expect to be vaccinated against coronavirus 

Labour is also calling on Gavin Williamson to be honest with the public and publish SAGE advice about the return of schools and colleges next week, after reports suggest the scientific advisors have said stricter restrictions, including school closures, may be needed. 

Government failures to manage the spread of the virus mean students may not be able to return to classrooms next week, with the Health Secretary Matt Hancock (on Andrew Marr on 20 December) admitting that said: “the new variant is out of control”.

School and college staff have been working flat out during the holidays to get ready for mass testing in January, after the Government announced testing plans in the last days of the autumn term, months after Labour first called for students to be prioritised for testing. 

Also released today (31 Dec) was the Children’s Task and Finish Group: updated paper on children, schools and transmission this document makes clear the important role schools play in the spread of coronavirus. 

Overall, accumulating evidence is consistent with increased transmission occurring amongst school children when schools are open, particularly in children of secondary school age (high confidence): multiple data sources show a reduction in transmission in children following schools closing for half term, and transmission rates increasing again following the post-half term return to school (medium confidence). It is difficult to quantify the size of this effect, and it remains difficult to quantify the level of transmission taking place specifically within schools compared to other settings. 

In Annex B, “Report on COVID-19 in schools in England”, Figure 2 shows the very strong correlation between confirmed cases amongst pupils and confirmed cases amongst staff.

From the release of the minutes of SAGE 74 held on 22nd December:

  1. It is highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November (i.e. with schools open) would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant. R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools. It remains difficult to distinguish where transmission between children takes place, and it is important to consider contacts made outside of schools. 
  2. It is not known whether measures with similar stringency and adherence as Spring, with both primary and secondary schools closed, would be sufficient to bring R below 1 in the presence of the new variant. The introduction of Tier 4 measures in England combined with the school holidays will be informative of the strength of measures required to control the new variant but analysis of this will not be possible until mid-January. 

The latest Coronavirus Infection Survey shows that infection rates are highest amongst school age children.

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