Coronavirus: Williamson on 3 key questions for teachers

Should schools have PPE? What's the scientific advice on teacher safety? Tes put questions to the education secretary
19th April 2020, 7:56pm


Coronavirus: Williamson on 3 key questions for teachers
Coronavirus: Education Secretary Gavin Williamson Faced Teachers' Key Questions About Schools Reopening

Education secretary Gavin Williamson led the government's daily coronavirus briefing for the first time this afternoon, where he was challenged on crucial issues facing schools during the outbreak.

Following Mr Williamson's address to the nation, Tes was there to ask questions on behalf of teachers and school staff.

His responses to three key queries raised during the briefing can be read below.

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Should teachers working in schools during the coronavirus outbreak have PPE (personal protective equipment)?

Here Mr Williamson alluded to the fact that his wife is a teaching assistant and pointed to guidance already published, rather than answering the question from Tes directly.

He said: "What we have done is we have worked very closely with the whole sector in terms of issuing advice as to what type of protection that they need.

"I mean, I have to say, as someone who has family members who are working in schools; as someone who very much sees first-hand the amazing work that's being done by teachers, teaching assistants and all who are going into schools at this time to make sure that schools are open, [I am] really in awe and [have] appreciation for what's been done.

"But their safety is absolutely paramount, as it is for children, and we've issued guidance - we've worked with the sector and explained what's needed and what's required, and been very clear about that."

That guidance actually states that "educational staff do not require personal protective equipment".

Mr Williamson continued: "And we've asked Public Health England to work with...spoken directly with unions as to what is required to give them the reassurance that we're doing everything that is required to support teachers and all those who work in schools."

But the second-largest teaching union is clearly not happy with that reassurance, having warned that the denial of PPE for teachers is "dodgy". 

What scientific advice has the government received on the safety implications of reopening schools for teachers?

A second question from Tes that goes to heart of teachers' concerns about early reopenings of schools.

A hesitant secretary of state did not really answer the question although he did say that teachers would have "proper notice" of school openings so that they could prepare.

The government scientist present at the briefing was more forthcoming, saying that "if schools had been unsafe places they would have been closed very much earlier". But she then seemed to suggest that things may have changed since, stressing the "need to be really careful".

Mr Williamson said: "As I set out right at the start, there are five key tests that we have put forward as to…they need to be passed if we're going to be in a position where we start changing restrictions that we're currently operating under.

"We're already talking with the sector as to what needs to be done and how we support them for when we start bringing schools back fully and operationally, as we'd usually expect to see schools.

"But finally one of the key points we also need to ensure is that people have proper notice, so that they're able to prepare.

"Whether that's teachers and those who are working in schools…but it's also about parents and children - those families who are having to deal with the consequences of this pandemic, and making sure that they have enough notice in order to be able to plan.

"But at every stage we have tried to give as clear and comprehensive guidance about the safety of those who are working in schools and, of course, those children who are in schools."

Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, added: "Right at the start of the pandemic and the implementations that we considered, if schools had been unsafe places they would have been closed very much earlier on, and I think we need to keep that in mind.

"Schools are really important places for learning and for socialising but they were not a key element of risk, if you like, in the early modelling work which was done.

"As we go forward we need to be really careful - we're in a different context, so obviously what was when we first started off, we need to change, and we need to look at what change and intervention will result in what outcome for our population.

"And one of the key issues with children, thankfully, we do know that they seem to be less severely affected by this, but we still have a huge amount to learn about the virus generally in terms of its transmission, and that is particularly the case in children.

"So I think there is still a lot of learning - we will be looking at that again as I've mentioned with other responses.

"We continuously keep an eye on international evidence where other countries have looked at similar things, and the scientific advisory group for emergencies will continue to look at that as well."

Do you believe any form of social distancing is really feasible in schools?

A question that would have been top of the Tes list, if a broadcast colleague hadn't asked it first for all of us.

The problems of social distancing in schools where corridors are less than two metres wide have already been expressed memorably by the head of Michaela Community School, Katharine Birbalsingh, who said this week: "Schools will open at some point. But what I don't want is for people to perpetuate the lie, and it is a lie, that social distancing [in schools] is possible - it just isn't."

Again Mr Williamson didn't really give a straight answer to a straight question, saying only that: "I think we recognise the challenges of anyone who's a parent of trying to instil social distancing in small children. And we have to understand really that sort of broad context.

"We are in a stage in terms of dealing with this pandemic, where there are an awful lot of questions that sadly people would love to have answers to but in terms of how the virus develops, we have to see that."


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