Coronavirus: Schools criticise ‘reprehensible’ last-minute advice on reopening

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Head teachers and teachers have criticised the government for “last-minute” guidance on what to do during virus outbreaks and local lockdowns.

The guidance for England was published on Friday evening, just days before many schools begin term.

The NAHT school leaders’ union said the timing was “reprehensible”.

In local lockdowns, secondary pupils could be kept home every other fortnight and, in an outbreak, large groups could be told to self-isolate.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said the decision to publish the guidance on a Friday evening before a bank holiday was “nothing short of reprehensible and demonstrates a complete lack of regard for the well-being of school leaders and their teams”.

He said: “It was obvious weeks ago that lockdown advice was necessary.”

In areas where additional coronavirus restrictions have been introduced because of rising cases, secondary schools have been told they might have to limit the number of students and bring in a rota system, with each pupil spending a fortnight at school then a fortnight learning remotely so as to break the chain of Covid-19 transmission.

The guidance says this would only happen after “all other measures have been exhausted” – but that if cases continued to increase, all students might have to move to remote learning apart from those in vulnerable groups or whose parents were key workers.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the document was a contingency plan for a “worst-case scenario”, which he hoped would not need to be implemented.

The guidance also sets out what to do when a school confirms a case of coronavirus. Health protection teams will advise the school how many pupils need to be sent home to isolate for 14 days.

If a case occurs where the “bubbles” used to limit pupils’ contacts in schools are smaller, such as a single class, all those in the bubble might have to be sent home to isolate.

In bigger bubbles, such as an entire year group, health protection teams could send home all the other pupils, or limit self-isolation to those who were in direct contact or close proximity or who had travelled with a pupil with the virus.

Patrick Roach, of teachers’ union NASUWT, said the government needed to give schools the resources to cope with the potential disruption, including support for remote learning and cover for staff absence due to self-isolation.

Ark Charter Academy in Portsmouth puts up social distancing signsImage copyrightPA MEDIA
Image captionMany schools are days away from the start of the new term

“The availability of staff where there is a local lockdown or outbreak may mean that schools have to limit provision if they cannot be staffed safely,” he added.

Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union, said he felt a “weary, resigned sense of inevitability” to receive the guidance at the last minute, after head teachers had been accused of “treachery” for asking for contingency planning for outbreaks.

He said more needed to be done to support students in exam years who might find their teaching disrupted, including ensuring they had access to laptops to study at home.

“We have to do better than previously,” he said. “We simply cannot have those young people being left at home without clear guidance on what they’re going to do.”

Mary Bousted, joint general-secretary of the National Education Union, said the guidance should have been ready “months ago”.

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