Teachers' leaders have demanded an end to "disturbing" speculation about schools reopening in a letter to the prime minister today, calling for the government to share its modelling of how many pupils, staff, parents and carers are expected to contract or die from coronavirus.
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Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretaries of the NEU teaching union, describe in their letter to Boris Johnson how teachers have been "disturbed" by "increasing media speculation that schools will soon be reopened".
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"We consider this speculation to be most unhelpful: it may undermine people’s resolve to stick to social isolation," the letter says, adding that the speculation is "seemingly being stimulated by unnamed government ministers".
"Given that an early return to full school populations will mean an increased risk to our members and the children in their care, we are writing to ask you to share your modelling, evidence and plans," the letter says.
The letter asks the prime minister to share any modelling related to the increased risks to pupils, teachers, parents and carers through reopening schools "as a matter of urgency" and asks whether schools would be reopened based on the idea that social distancing could be implemented within schools, which it said members felt was a "foolhardy assumption".
A government spokesperson said: “Schools will remain closed until further notice, except for children of critical workers and the most vulnerable children.
"We will only reopen schools when the scientific advice indicates it is safe to do so, and will work closely with the sector to agree our approach.”
The NEU's letter to the prime minister in full:
Dear prime minister,
We are writing to you on behalf of the members of the National Education Union. First, let us say that we wish you all the best in your personal recovery from the virus.
Our members are hard at work, supporting the children of key workers and vulnerable children who are still attending schools. They are helping efforts to support vulnerable children at home. They are doing their best to support children’s learning in these unusual circumstances.
We are pleased that you, other ministers and the chief nursing officer have acknowledged their efforts in helping NHS staff to be at work.
Our members are disturbed, however, by increasing media speculation that schools will soon be reopened. We consider this speculation to be most unhelpful: it may undermine people’s resolve to stick to social isolation. We are disturbed that it is seemingly being stimulated by unnamed government ministers.
Given that an early return to full school populations will mean an increased risk to our members and the children in their care, we are writing to ask you to share your modelling, evidence and plans.
As a matter of urgency, and certainly well before any proposal to re-open schools is published, please can you share with our members:
- Your modelling of the increased number of cases and mortalities among children, their parents, carers and extended families, and their teachers and support staff, as a result of the reopening of schools.
- Whether such modelling is based on some notion that social distancing could be implemented in schools. (We ask this because our members think it would be a foolhardy assumption.)
- Whether your modelling would be based on concrete plans to establish regular testing of children and staff, availability of appropriate PPE and enhanced levels of cleaning – with all of which we are currently experiencing severe difficulties.
- Whether your modelling would include plans for children and staff who are in vulnerable health categories, or who are living with people in vulnerable health categories, not to be in attendance at school or college?
- Your latest evidence concerning the groups of people who are most vulnerable to death or life-changing consequences as a result of the virus, for example the evidence of the impact on those who live in crowded accommodation, those with different comorbidities, those from different ethnic groups and of different ages and sexes.
- Whether the Scottish Parliament, the devolved assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland and our neighbours in the government of the Republic of Ireland agree with your plans.
Further, given that in reopening schools and colleges, you would be asking our members to take an increased risk, we believe they have a right to understand fully how any such proposal belongs within an overall government strategy to defeat the virus.
In this context, please could you give the firmest of indications:
- Whether you are developing plans for extensive testing, contact tracing and quarantine in society as a whole? Our members see that countries successfully implementing such strategies have many fewer cases and many, many fewer mortalities than we do in the UK.
- If you are developing such plans, how long it will take to put them in place and how low the number of virus cases needs to be before such a strategy can be successful.
- Whether you intend these plans be in place well before schools are reopened. (This seems essential to us.)
- If you are not developing such plans, what is your overall approach and is it dependent on an assumption that those who have had the virus are subsequently immune?
- Of your assessment of the strategies in place in South Korea, where there is a clear policy of testing, contact tracing and continued school closures.
We have written to you as representatives of staff who, in the event of schools reopening, would be asked to accept an increased risk for themselves and the children they teach. You will appreciate that our attitude to the issue of reopening is dependent on the answers to the questions above.
Again, we wish you well in your recovery and in your efforts to bring our country through this crisis. We restate our willingness to work with you on finding solutions to the problems posed by the current situation.
We look forward to your urgent reply.
Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney
Joint general secretaries of the NEU teaching union