Heads' unions call for online lessons in Covid hotspots

NAHT and ASCL general secretaries warn that keeping schools open in Covid hotspots poses a risk to wider public health in letter to education secretary
13th December 2020, 12:11pm
John Roberts


Heads' unions call for online lessons in Covid hotspots

The General Secretaries Of Naht & Ascl Have Written A Joint Letter Calling On Dfe To Move Lessons Online In Covid Hotspots.

Headteachers' leaders have issued a joint letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson urging that schools and colleges in Covid hotspots should be able to move to online learning.

"We would strongly suggest in relation to the mass testing programme in London, Kent, and Essex, that the government considers immediately moving secondary schools and colleges to remote learning while this testing takes place," says the letter, signed by the general secretaries of the NAHT school leaders' union, Paul Whiteman, and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), Geoff Barton.

The letter also calls on the government to explain why rapid testing of school pupils in London, Kent and Essex has not been offered in other hard-hit areas.

"We have to now question why the government has apparently ignored the option of moving to remote education in the areas of London, Kent, and Essex where high infection rates have triggered the decision to carry out mass testing of secondary-age pupils," the letter reads.

"We must also raise the concerns of many of our members in other areas of England where infection rates are high over why the government is failing to take similar action in these areas, too.

"There is a very strong feeling that this is an example of a north/south divide with the government more alert to what is happening in London and the South East than it is about what is happening in other regions."

Covid: Rapid testing for all secondary school students in hotspot areas of the South 

Wales: All secondary schools move to online learning

Divide: Heads ask why hard-hit areas of the North did not get urgent Covid testing

The union leaders also warned of a wider public health risk of keeping schools fully open in areas where Covid transmission among school-age pupils is a concern.

"There seems to us to be a question mark over the sense in having all pupils in school given the clear risk that has been identified of infection transmission amongst this age group.

"As you are aware, it is not just the danger of infection transmission in schools themselves that is the problem, but the fact that these pupils have to travel to and from school, with the inevitable mixing that takes place.

"To be clear, this is obviously more than a matter of controlling infection rates amongst this age group. It is also about the wider public health consideration in reducing the risk of transmission within families and to school staff."

The letter also suggests there could be logic in simply remaining closed for the rest of the term to avoid more transmission of the disease.

"Clearly, moving to remote education while testing takes place would take us very close to the end of term, and there would be a further question over whether it would be sensible to return at all, but that is a matter which could be decided at a later date.

"The priority is to minimise the immediate risk."

The letter to Mr Williamson concludes: "I hope you will understand that this is a matter of such importance to our members, and there is such a sense of anger and frustration at the government's mishandling of the arrangements for the end of term, that we are making this an open letter, which we will circulate to our respective memberships."

The DfE has been approached for a comment.

Currently, though, the department is insisting schools across the country stay open until the end of term and has raised the prospect of legal action against schools, including an academy trust that had planned to move to remote learning in its last week to stop Covid impacting on staff and pupils' Christmas.

The government's rapid testing plan in the South East has also led to school leaders in areas of the North hit hard by Covid to question why they did not receive similar support.

Jonny Uttley, who leads a multi-academy trust in Hull, said the city had Covid rates more than double anything seen in London now but was not offered rapid testing and had its call to be allowed to move onto rotas rejected by the DfE. 

On Friday, the Department of Health and Social Care revealed the areas of London and Essex that are being targeted for immediate tests of secondary school pupils, staff and families.

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