Schools like Coldfall Primary School in north London have been told to remain closed because of a surge in Covid-19 cases across the capital © Hollie Adams/Getty

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Plans for the start of the new school term in England were in chaos on Sunday, as teaching unions and some councils refused government instructions to send primary school pupils back to classrooms amid a surge in coronavirus cases across the country. 

Unions representing teachers, school leaders and support staff in England have demanded primary schools, which cater for children aged between four and 11, delay the start of in-person teaching, leaving many headteachers unsure about whether they will open their doors this week.

The confusion highlights profound disagreements over the role of school closures in containing the virus, as hospitalisations increased by one-third in a week and prime minister Boris Johnson warned the UK may have to implement tougher control measures.

Since September, the Department for Education has insisted schools play a relatively small role in Covid-19 transmission and that they should close only as a last resort. But with a new variant of the virus spreading fast among young people, headteachers and education professionals are demanding a more cautious approach.

Local authorities in tier 4 areas, which have the highest restrictions, including Cumbria and Birmingham, have said schools are free to decide whether to reopen this week and urged the government to change its policy. Brighton and Hove council on Saturday went further, advising all primary schools to move to remote learning for two weeks, while Essex council decided to keep all schools that were due to reopen closed until the middle of this week. 

The headteacher of one school in West Sussex said he was waiting to hear whether he would have enough staff to safely run lessons.

Michael Tidd, head of East Preston Junior school, said: “It shouldn’t really be down to schools and teachers to make this decision but there is a complete lack of faith now in the government’s judgment.”

Alan Brookes, chair of the Kent Association of Headteachers and head of Fulston Manor School, said “nobody can understand” why schools were being closed in some areas of Kent hit hard by the virus, but not others. 

He said the unplanned and widespread absences of staff and pupils meant many headteachers thought they would struggle to offer decent teaching, whether in the classroom or online. At least two school staff members in the county had resigned over safety fears, he added.

“Heads will be asking themselves, ‘Can I open safely and can I also guarantee an adequate quality of education’,” he said. “If the answer to that is no they will do whatever they can to remain open for key workers.”

The government announced last Wednesday a delay to the scheduled reopening of secondary schools in England, which cater for 11-18 year old children. Instead of exam-year pupils returning on Monday as planned, they were told they would go back to the classroom on January 11. The start date for all other secondary pupils was also pushed back by a further week to January 18.

Meanwhile, primary schools in London and some areas of the south of England were told to offer remote learning for all but vulnerable children and those of key workers for the first two weeks of term. The majority — including some in tier 4 areas — will stay open, however. An original decision to keep some primary schools in London open was reversed on Friday.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said all decisions on moving to remote education were based on evidence on infection rates and that keeping children at home was “a last resort and temporary solution”.

Amanda Spielman, head of the UK’s education watchdog Ofsted, is among the education leaders to back up the government’s view that school closures should be “kept to an absolute minimum”. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph Ms Spielman said that “children’s lives can’t just be put on hold while we wait for vaccination programmes to take effect”.

But school leaders, teachers and support staff on Sunday said the plans risked putting teachers, pupils and their families in danger of infection.

On Sunday, 400,000 people attended an online meeting by the National Education Union, which represents teachers and has advised primary school members to refuse to attend school and work only remotely.

The union, which has called on all primary schools to move to remote learning for the first two weeks of term, said attending school posed a “serious and imminent” danger to health and safety.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the union, said on Sunday the action was “emphatically not” a strike, but said fear among members and “government inaction and incompetence” had left the union with “no alternative”.

“The government is adopting a whack-a-mole strategy, letting levels get out of control and then dealing with the consequences later on,” she said.

The NEU’s concerns are backed up by scientists. A paper by Imperial College London, published on Friday, found the UK’s new Covid variant spread quickest among under-20s and was spreading rapidly to older people. It stated the R rate of Covid-19 was unlikely to drop below 1 — the government’s target to reduce the spread of the virus — unless all schools were closed.

The mounting evidence has prompted the traditionally more conservative headteachers unions to urge the government to delay opening schools for at least two weeks.

Over the weekend, the National Association for Head Teachers (NAHT) and the Association of School and College Leaders launched a legal action challenging the government on a “wide range” of issues including scientific advice and guidance on testing in schools. 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, said infection rates were out of control in large parts of the country, creating “intolerable risks to many school communities.”

The union has also raised concerns about mass testing for secondary school pupils, which will begin on Monday using rapid-result lateral flow tests.

The government said the programme, which will test all pupils twice at the beginning of term, will “reduce cases of the virus”. But the NAHT called it a “botched DIY system” and some scientists have raised concerns about the accuracy of the lateral flow tests.

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