Schools in areas where infection rates are high should have the flexibility to close, says Mayor Andy Burnham.
With the government announcing this week that all schools and colleges will open from March 8, he said he’s questioned the logic of what unions described as a ‘big bang’ approach.
As Greater Manchester’s figures fall slower than in other parts of the country, and are rising in Bury and on the verge of moving up in Tameside, he told his weekly press conference that individual schools and council leaders need to have more power to make decisions on what’s best for their community.
“One thing I did question in the roadmap is the logic of bringing all year groups in all schools and colleges back on the same day in all parts of the country,” he said.
“I would allow more discretion and flexibility at a local level – headteachers working with directors of public health and councils – to vary from the timetable or to phase the return if they judge that is the safest and the right thing to do.”
He said he understands there is some ‘flexibility in the arrangements’ built into the government’s plan, but he’s ‘not sure whether it’s sufficient’.
“I will certainly call for that approach to be applied,” he added. “Particularly where we do have boroughs beginning to show a rise in cases. That would imply to me that a more cautious approach to the return of students to schools and colleges would be called for.”
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If there are concerns about rising infection rates locally, as is currently the case in Bury, Mr Burnham believes heads and leaders should be able to make the judgement ‘not to close the schools per se, but to take perhaps a more phased approach to the return’.
He added: “What we wouldn’t want to see is the overruling of councils and schools as we saw in London before Christmas. I think you set a broad direction of travel, but allow some local judgements to be made in particular areas and not apply a blanket whole school closures in a borough, or all opening.
“I think it’s the presumption we want all schools to open as quickly as possible, but with the ability for heads to use their own judgement if they prefer a more phased return.”
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Sir Richard Leese, deputy mayor of Greater Manchester and leader of Manchester council, says the current infection rates are while schools are still closed to most pupils and is not convinced the full reopening will have a huge impact.
He says ‘we need to bring overall prevalence rate down’ before looking at any localised contained schemes.
“That’s from schools closed,” he said of the figures. “I’m not sure reopening schools is going to have a massive impact on that.”
He feel it’s ‘rather more to do with the fact that large numbers of Greater Manchester people have to go to work whatever the conditions of lockdown’ and highlighted the findings of a recent survey which showed over 60% of the region’s working age population are having to go to work regularly.
Government guidance for schools and childcare settings says that any decision over restricting attendance ‘will not be taken lightly’.
It states: “These will be ministerial decisions made on an area-by-area basis in the light of all available evidence, public health advice and local and national circumstances.”
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Stressing that it has made it ‘a national priority that education and childcare settings should continue to operate as normally as possible during the coronavirus pandemic’, any restrictions would only be put in place ‘as a last resort to reduce the overall number of social contacts in our communities and help protect the NHS’.
The guidance adds: “Whole setting closure will not generally be necessary. Such closures should only be considered on the advice of local health protection teams or the Regional Director of Public Health.”