School reopening announcement due amid concerns at rising virus cases

Aine Fox, PA
·5-min read

An announcement on the return of schools in England after the Christmas break is due to be made, amid rising coronavirus case rates and hospital admissions.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will make a statement in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon.

There has been growing concern from teaching unions and scientists about the spread of the virus following the discovery of its much more transmissible variant.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is due to give an update on the plan for the reopening of schools in England (House of Commons/PA)
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is due to give an update on the plan for the reopening of schools in England (House of Commons/PA)

A YouGov poll conducted overnight suggested that 43% of 7,999 British adults surveyed would “strongly support” keeping schools in England closed for two further weeks after the Christmas break.

Just 9% “strongly oppose” and 10% “somewhat oppose” keeping school gates shut, YouGov said.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the aim is to “protect education as much as possible” but acknowledged the challenge posed by the new variant.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The Education Secretary will be setting out his proposals later today. Clearly we want to protect education as much as possible.

“But the new variant does make it much easier for this disease to transmit. So we are going to protect education as much as we can.”

Boris Johnson was due to chair a key meeting on Wednesday looking at delaying the reopening of secondary schools, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Labour had called for Mr Williamson to make a statement to MPs on the plan for schools and colleges, with shadow education secretary Kate Green saying “staff and pupils are crying out for clarity about the start of term next week”.

She added: “Silence from Government is not an option.”

Earlier this month, the Government said exam-year students would go back to school as normal after the Christmas holidays, but the majority of secondary school pupils would start the term online to allow headteachers to roll out mass testing of children and staff.

London mayor Sadiq Khan said he did not want to see education of children disrupted, but due to the worsening situation in hospitals he called on ministers to “delay the reopening of secondary schools for in-person learning for most children until later in January”.

Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said schools staying shut may be “required” if it was “the only alternative to having exponentially growing numbers of hospitalisations”.

Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) members Professor Andrew Hayward and Dr Mike Tildesley have also suggested a possible “slight delay” to having pupils back on site.

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said schools “should be the last places to close”.

He called for an “ambitious, national and properly funded recovery plan” for children and young people which he described as “especially vital” if schools remain partially or fully closed in the early part of the year.

But Professor Susan Michie, a member of Spi-B – a sub-committee of Sage – and also a member of Independent Sage, said January should be used to “make schools safe” with improved ventilation, free masks and multiple sanitiser stations.

She said during this time online teaching should be offered for most children, other than those who are vulnerable, those of key workers and those who cannot be taught at home for other reasons.

She said: “To achieve this plan, we need an immediate Government task force, which includes the teaching unions, local authorities, governing bodies, and parents, even children, to implement this plan.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing on Tuesday that they were “still planning for a staggered opening of schools and we are working to ensure testing is in place”.

But he added that all measures are being kept “under constant review”.

The staggered approach would see primary school pupils and Year 11 and Year 13 pupils returning in the first week of January, and other students going back later in the month.

Meanwhile, with the approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, a union has reiterated its call for school and college staff to have priority when it comes to getting the jab.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We are calling for school and college staff to be prioritised for vaccinations because they are being asked to go into an environment which is inherently busy and crowded.

“Vaccinations would give them extra reassurance, reduce the need for staff to self-isolate, and mean less disruption.”

Professor Wei Shen Lim, chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said phase two of the vaccination programme will consider key workers.

He told a briefing on Wednesday that any teacher who is above 50 years of age and those who are under 50 but with underlying health conditions would be eligible for vaccination within phase one of the programme.

He added: “Phase two of the programme will take into account the range of other professions and key workers who would benefit from vaccination and protection, particularly if they can’t avoid travelling to work for instance, or they might be exposed at work.

“That decision has not been made yet so it will come with phase two advice, but the advice has not been completed yet.”