More than 280,000 people have so far signed a parliamentary petition calling for schools and colleges to be closed amid rising Covid-19 infection rates.
The petition, which has cleared the hurdle for parliamentary debate in terms of the number of signatures, calls for the closures in order to "protect teachers and pupils and their families".
And more than 150,000 teachers and support staff have signed a separate petition started by the NEU teaching union, which calls for an amendment to the lockdown bill set to go before Parliament on Wednesday so that it includes the closure of schools to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers.
Kevin Courtney, NEU joint general secretary, said: “We have seen a fiftyfold increase in infections in secondary schools alone since September. Schools, clearly, are an engine for virus transmission.
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“The lockdown would be much more effective in reducing virus levels if schools and colleges were a part of it. We have seen the huge support of our members behind our campaign and now it is time for Boris Johnson, [education secretary] Gavin Williamson and every other member of Parliament to stand behind our education staff, who are working so hard in the face of adversity to deliver the education our children and young people deserve.
Coronavirus: Huge increase in cases in secondary schools
The NEU highlights the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, which estimate that 1 per cent of primary pupils and 2 per cent of secondary students have the virus.
This means that in every three secondary classes two students will have the virus, according to NEU analysis of ONS figures, which also shows that that virus levels are now nine times higher amongst primary pupils than they were at the start of term and an “astonishing” 50 times higher amongst secondary students.
New government guidance suggests that a key reasons for keeping secondary schools open is so students can "keep progressing towards" GCSE and A-level exams.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove told the BBC yesterday that pupils had to be kept in classrooms even if it meant extending the lockdown.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also said schools must stay open because the harm to children would be far too great otherwise.
But as reported in the Manchester Evening News, Labour mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham broke ranks, telling an online press conference yesterday: “I would suggest a period of two weeks’ closure towards the second half of November so that schools have time to prepare online learning, but that would create the conditions for the biggest drop in cases that we could achieve and it would then create the conditions for some kind of Christmas for more families because they need it right now.”
Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned that transmission in secondary schools was high and suggested that a rethink on keeping schools open might become necessary.
He said: “Because we have delayed the onset of this lockdown, it does make keeping schools open harder. We know that transmission, particularly in secondary schools, is high.
“Personally, I think this is definitely the lockdown to put in place now but if that transmission, particularly in secondary schools, continues to rise then that may have to be revisited in the next four weeks in order to get R [the Covid-19 reproduction rate] below one and the epidemic shrinking.”
Former chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport warned: “[The R rate] is unlikely this time to come down quite as fast as it did during the first lockdown because we have got schools open.”
Sharing this view, Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at University College London, told BBC Radio 4 today that there was “substantial transmission” within secondary schools, and said not closing secondary schools could lead to a longer lockdown in England.
However, deputy director of Public Health England Dr Susan Hopkins told Times Radio Breakfast this morning that the majority of coronavirus infection in children was related to “infection in their households”.
She said: “We know that, over the summer, families and people have been all back in work and going out and socialising, so there are many routes of infection and bringing it into the household.”
She added: “We have also agreed that we want our children to be in education, that we think that the damage done from a year of children’s education lost is too high for us to accept as a society.”
More than 150,000 people backed the NEU’s campaign in less than 48 hours and more than 20,000 have written to their MP and lobbied them on social media since yesterday afternoon.
The NEU says schools should be moved to a rota at the end of the lockdown period.