The largest education union in Europe has demanded the Prime Minister closes schools “at least for some time and at least in some areas” due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The National Education Union (NEU) said the running of schools will be made “all the more complicated” as they advise teachers and staff who are classed as vulnerable to self-isolate.
But the Education Secretary insisted on Tuesday that the current medical and scientific guidance says that schools and other educational settings should remain open.
Today, the leadership of the National Education Union has written to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, calling for the Government to close schools and colleges and protect vulnerable educators or those caring for at risk family members.— National Education Union (@NEUnion) March 17, 2020
Here is the text of the letter.👇 pic.twitter.com/dQ19ij6FLL
Gavin Williamson, while announcing the suspension of routine Ofsted inspections, said they will announce closures if the chief medical officer or chief scientific adviser say it is in the best interests of children and teachers.
Boris Johnson stopped short of announcing school closures on Monday as he unveiled unprecedented peacetime measures to try to control the spread of Covid-19.
NEU joint general secretaries Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney said there was an “apparent contradiction” between banning mass gatherings and keeping schools open, in a letter to Mr Johnson on Tuesday.
They referred to guidance that says pregnant women, people over the age of 70 and those with certain health conditions will be asked to stay at home in the coming days.
Dr Bousted and Mr Courtney said: “We intend to advise all our members in these categories or caring for people in them to stop attending schools and colleges from next Monday at the latest. Some will do so earlier.
“This will make the running of schools all the more complicated.
“Given your failure to release modelling comparing different scenarios of school closures, we are now forced to call on you to close schools, at least for some time and at least in some areas.”
Dr Bousted and Mr Courtney proposed that teachers and school leaders work on plans to open schools on a limited basis.
This would allow care for pupils whose parents work in emergency services and distribution, as well as ensuring children in food poverty have access to free school meals.
They added: “Of course, this could not be a full opening and it would mean substantial changes from the way schools are normally run – but we believe schools could be important community hubs.
“This in turn requires that Sats are abandoned and that you produce proposals on the inevitable widespread disruption to GCSE and A-level exams.”
In a video posted on Twitter, Mr Williamson said: “The chief medical officer has said the impact of closing schools on children’s education will be substantial, but the benefit to public health would not be.
“We are following the advice of our medical and scientific community every step of the way.”
Following meetings with union representatives on Monday, the Education Secretary said he was drawing up a “full package of measures” to support schools staying open.
It comes after the NASUWT, which represents teachers and headteachers, said a lack of advice was creating “chaos and confusion” and placing “intolerable pressure” on staff.
Our latest guidance on the Coronavirus can be found at https://t.co/LreYBc6z3f— NASUWT (@NASUWT) March 17, 2020
This covers issues including long & short term school closures, pay, implications for supply teachers & impact on exams.
Our guidance will continue to be updated as the national situation develops.
Acting general secretary Chris Keates said: “All of the announcements continue to be couched as guidance or advice, which is simply serving to increase anxiety and uncertainty.”
Schools are struggling with diminishing staff levels, according to the union, while changes to staff working conditions have the potential to compromise health and safety for staff and pupils.
“This situation cannot be allowed to continue,” Ms Keates said.
“The UK Government working with governments and administrations across the UK must now make a definitive decision about the steps being taken to protect the school workforce and the closure of schools.”
Do you have questions about Coronavirus in an education setting?— Department for Education (@educationgovuk) March 16, 2020
You can contact our helpline, which offers guidance for anyone with education related questions - from early years up to universities, plus parents. #Coronavirus #covidã¼19uk pic.twitter.com/cWCUEjP7SR
London mayor Sadiq Khan told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that advice on school closures could change in coming weeks.
He said: “The advice is that it makes very little clinical difference in relation to closing schools, but that advice may change… what we do know is some teachers may be pregnant, others may have underlying health issues, a child may have a persistent cough or temperature which means mum, dad, carer decides to withdraw the child.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if, over the course of the two weeks before Easter, Government advice changes.”
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We recognise schools are facing numerous challenges as a result of coronavirus, and we are continually reviewing how best to support them.
“Yesterday, the Education Secretary met with organisations representing school leaders as part of ongoing engagement to ensure the outbreak has the least possible impact on children’s education, and assure them that any actions taken will be based on the latest medical and scientific guidance.”