Teachers' leaders have blamed the government for school closures announced tonight as they said it had allowed the pandemic to spiral "out of control".
Prime minister Boris Johnson said at tonight's briefing that primary and secondary schools will move online for most pupils under a new national lockdown, and that exams will not take place "as normal" this summer.
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Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teachers' union, said: "Why Boris Johnson allowed such confusion and chaos to build up around school openings before making this belated, blindingly obvious decision is beyond belief.
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"Government must take responsibility for this closure because it has allowed Covid-19 to become, again, out of control.”
Dr Bousted added that the government had not prepared for either a new period of remote learning or alternatives to exam assessment at GCSE and A level, despite having months to do so.
"[Education secretary] Gavin Williamson has become an expert in putting his head in the sand – ignoring the mounting evidence of Covid-19 transmission in schools to education professionals and into pupils’ households," she said.
"SAGE [the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] told ministers on 22 December that even a lockdown of the same severity as last spring would not be enough to reduce the R rate [Covid reproduction rate] below 1. It is incomprehensible that, with this information, the prime minister even yesterday continued to declare that schools were safe. These are not the words of a leader who is ‘following the science’."
And headteachers said it was "frustrating" that the government had threatened schools with legal action over closures last month only to make "a series of chaotic announcements" at the start of term.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "We are relieved the government has finally bowed to the inevitable and agreed to move schools and colleges to remote education in response to alarming Covid infection rates.
“It is very frustrating that it issued legal threats to schools at the end of last term to prevent them moving to remote education, and then made a series of chaotic announcements about the start of this term," he added.
“Everybody understands this is a fast-moving situation, but ministers have to stop boxing themselves into a corner by being so dogmatic about their plans even as those plans are obviously unravelling."
Dr Bousted said that under the first national lockdown, schools had become a "political football" and that this time the government "must make pupils a priority".
"They can start by fulfilling a long-broken promise to provide laptops and internet access for all pupils so that they are able to access remote learning at home," she said.
“Much more has to be done for vulnerable pupils. This time government cannot falter in ensuring those young people are safe, have enough food and are supported in maintaining their mental health."
She said the government needed to take "responsibility" for bringing pupils and staff back to schools with "no social distancing, poor ventilation and no PPE [personal protective equipment]", resulting in primary and secondary pupils becoming the most infected age groups.
"Their ability, with the increased transmissibility of the new strains of the virus, to transmit Covid-19 to their households and into their communities, and to adults in schools – teachers, support staff and leaders – has caused such fear in education professionals," she said.
“No one wanted schools and colleges to be shut again but the evidence clearly pointed to the necessity for this to happen weeks ago."
Mr Barton added: "We hope the government will now work constructively with the profession to bring all pupils back into schools and colleges as soon as it is safe to do so, with timely information and guidance, and that it avoids its usual shambolic approach."