With a new strain of coronavirus thought to be faster spreading, and a growing rate of infections, many have been questioning whether schools should reopen as planned in January.
With current plans to see a staggered return to school among secondary school students, some educators have voiced concerns about whether this is the best way forward.
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There are also plans for a mass testing programme among some secondary schools, with remote support from 1,500 military personnel.
Here’s what’s been said about the issue.
What are the current plans for schools reopening?
In secondary schools in England, the current plans are to stagger the return of pupils to the classrooms, with GCSE and A-Level students in year 11 and 12 returning ahead of others, in most cases from 4 January.
Pupils in other years are expected to have online classes for the first week, before going back to school from Monday 11 January.
Different rules apply to vulnerable children and children of key workers, who will also return to school earlier in most cases.
Mass testing programmes are due to be rolled out in secondary schools.
Primary schools will see children return as normal.
What have education representatives said?
Some teachers and unions have suggested a delay to school reopening could be a smart move, while some support the phased reopening of schools.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) told BBC Breakfast said: “Eminent scientists have said that schools should remain closed; that’s what unions I think have been responding to.”
“None of this is to create problems because we know those tests are going to help more young people to keep from being disrupted – it’s a really good idea.”
While he welcomed plans for remote help with a mass school testing programme from soldiers, he added: “For 3,500 secondary schools, 1,500 troops doing webinars probably isn’t the Government response that we were looking for.”‘
He said the ASCL union supported the phased opening of schools with a testing system already in place, set up with the support of health services and the military.
“What that would then allow would be the phased introduction of children from next week and for us not to be on the back foot in implementing something we haven’t heard about until the day before Christmas Eve,” he said.
In a statement on the ASCL website, he added: “Schools and colleges are very keen for rapid Covid tests to be available to staff and students, but the government’s half-baked plan is simply not deliverable.”
Meanwhile, Steve Chalke, founder of multi-academy trusts Oasis urged the government to come up with “a clear strategy for the continuity of education” telling the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We would suggest a week or two’s delay to think it through, to do it well”.
Joint general secretaries of the National Education Union, Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney also shared their concerns in a letter to Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.
It said: “Firstly, we believe that you should allow and encourage heads in ensuring that first two weeks of learning should be online, apart from key worker and vulnerable children, to allow cases to fall further and to allow time to properly set up the system of mass testing.
“Secondly, we believe that you should ask the local directors of public health to set the system of mass testing.”
Some teachers have also spoken of the “stress and panic” schools were put under to get the testing plans rolled out with short notice, leaving teachers “working most of the holidays”.
Nicola Mason, head of Chase Terrace Academy in Burntwood, Staffordshire, told BBC Breakfast: “We will be ready to start the testing but whether we will be ready to roll out a testing programme that will test 1,350 students three days apart and a weekly programme for staff, I’m not sure we will be able to do all of that in the four days that we’ve got before children come back,” she said.”
Meanwhile, preliminary research from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has suggested it may be necessary to close schools to get the new Covid-19 variant under control.
What has the government said?
Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon has told Good Morning Britain, he hoped “very much” schools will be open as planned adding, “I would like to see teachers and support staff made a priority for vaccinations”.
Mr Halfon added: “We also have to weigh up the risks to children’s academic attainment, their wellbeing, their mental health and I wouldn’t just dismiss that.
“Already pupils in some years are something like 15 to 22-months behind than they should be, and whilst we have a vaccine for the coronavirus we don’t have a vaccination if we destroy people’s life chances.”
Michael Gove also recently confirmed that arrangements for the return to school are currently expected to go ahead as planned.
Responding to questions on whether schools will reopen earlier this month on dates originally planned in January, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We want, if we possibly can, to get schools back in a staggered way at the beginning of January in the way that we have set out.
“But obviously the commonsensical thing to do is to follow the path of the epidemic and … to keep things under constant review.
He added: “It is very, very important to get kids and keep kids in education if you possibly can.”
What is the situation with mass testing and why is it an issue?
Plans for a new mass testing programme for secondary schools have been announced for some regions.
The plans included all secondary school teachers to be offered a weekly Covid test and any students who have been in contact with someone who tested positive, to be offered seven days of daily testing.
Members of the armed forces are expected to offer remote support, primarily through webinars and phone calls, to schools on the testing plans. Around 1500 members of the armed forces will be on hand to help.
Matt Hancock expressed concerns earlier in December about the number of Covid-19 cases in London, Kent and Essex, and that the data showed “by far” the fastest rise was among 11 to 18-year-olds.
But some educators said they felt they were not given enough warning to properly set up the testing programme ahead of the return of pupils.
It was hoped that mass testing would help reduce the number of young people missing lessons due to illness or the need to self-isolate, which had been affecting school attendance in some areas.
Additional reporting by Press Association.
— to inews.co.uk