All schools in England should shut for two weeks after the Christmas break due to a surge in coronavirus, the UK’s biggest teaching union has said.
The NEU’s call came after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said that all London primaries would remain shut on Monday, rather than only those in some boroughs.
He said the closures were a last resort in the face of a fast-moving situation.
Labour said the move had caused stress for pupils, teachers and parents.
The daily number of new Covid cases in the UK has topped 50,000 for the past four days, as the country struggles to control a new highly infectious variant of the virus.
Soaring cases have put extreme pressure on hospitals, with bosses warning that the next few weeks will be “nail-bitingly difficult”.
The president of the Royal College of Physicians, Prof Andrew Goddard, told the BBC the new strain was now spreading across the country, adding: “All hospitals that haven’t had the big pressures that they’ve had in the South East, London and south Wales should expect that it’s going to come their way.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint head of the National Education Union which has more than 450,000 members, called for all primary and secondary schools to be closed, saying “what is right for London is right for the rest of the country”.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We know the virus is up to 70% more infectious and the thing we do uniquely with children is we put them all together in secondary schools, where we know children really can transmit, in year group bubbles of up to 240 pupils with no social distancing.
“So it is not difficult to see why secondary school pupils are the highest age group for Covid infection and primary schools are the second highest. Dr Mary Bousted said the original advice to close schools in only some London boroughs “made no sense right from the beginning”
Dr Bousted told BBC Breakfast she hoped a closure of all schools would give time for a mass-testing system to be set up, but called for this to be led by public health bodies.
“In secondary schools for 1,000 pupils you will need about 21 volunteers to do this testing because teachers can’t do it and the support staff can’t do it, because they will be teaching and supporting children’s learning.”
She said the NEU would be holding an emergency meeting on Saturday.
Dr Mike Tildesley, a University of Warwick epidemiologist who advises the government as part of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said that while there was a rise in cases in secondary school age groups, there was not strong evidence of transmission in the school environment.
“Certainly the evidence in primary is that we are not getting a significant increase in cases in a primary school setting despite this new variant,” he said.
Mr Williamson said in mid-December that all primary school pupils in England would return as normal in January, while the return of secondary schools and colleges would be staggered to give them time to set up mass testing programmes.
But on Wednesday, Mr Williamson delayed the start of term for all secondary schools, as well as some primary schools in Covid hotspots in south-east England, including parts of London.
Two days later, after pressure from local authorities, he expanded the primary school closures to the whole of London.
It means more than a million primary school pupils will now learn from home for at least the first two weeks of term.
Vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers will continue to attend school, the government said, adding that early years care, alternative provision and special schools will remain open.
Dave Lee-Allan, head teacher of Stowmarket High School in Suffolk, described the situation as “utterly chaotic” and said he would not reopen the school if he did not feel it was fully prepared – saying “it should be left to the head teachers on the ground to make the right call”.
He added that it was frustrating that the government said “keeping children in school is a national priority and that we are key workers” but teachers did not qualify for early access to the vaccine.
Tom Prestwich, head teacher of Jubilee Primary School and Children’s Centre in Tulse Hill, south London, found out his school would stay closed on social media on Friday.
He told BBC Breakfast the school would need two staff rotas, one for online learning and one for those pupils who needed to come into the classroom.
“All of that takes time and this decision could have been made two weeks ago,” he said.
‘Chaos for parents’
Labour and unions representing teachers have also criticised the timing of the announcement.
“This is yet another government U-turn creating chaos for parents just two days before the start of term,” said Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green.
The NASUWT union, which represents 300,000 teachers and head teachers, said the government had disregarded scientific advice suggesting nationwide school closures could be “essential in breaking the chain of coronavirus transmission”.
General secretary Dr Patrick Roach said primary schools and parents in other areas subject to tier four coronavirus restrictions would wonder why the government regarded the risks to their health “less significant” than those in London and the South East.
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) called for the government to move all schools to home learning for a “brief and determined period for most children”.
When Greenwich Council in south-east London announced the closure of schools in mid-December, the Department for Education swiftly deployed legal action to force it to backtrack.
But barely two weeks later, it’s the government which has changed position.
First, earlier this week it agreed to the closure of primary and not just secondary schools in 50 areas in south-east England – even though its own guidance said this should happen only rarely.
Education ministers maintain it is epidemiology, not expediency, that has forced their hand – decisions are taken in consultation with the Department for Health and public health professionals.
But over the past 48 hours they have listened closely to, rather than lectured, those London authorities – including Greenwich – that were calling for more schools to close.
The Department for Education isn’t envisaging further school closures in tier four areas – which cover 75% of England’s population.
Sources say that other local authorities are not asking for this. But if more councils do become concerned about local rates of transmission, pressure could grow on ministers to send more children home.
Mr Williamson said the London-wide closures were a “last resort and a temporary solution” to help tackle the particularly high infection rates in the capital and said the government would “reopen classrooms as soon as we possibly can”.
According to figures on the government’s coronavirus dashboard, London has the highest weekly coronavirus rate in England, with a rate of 858.5 confirmed cases per 100,000 population – almost double the rate for England as a whole.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said closing all London schools was “the right decision” but said the original plan to only keep some London schools closed had caused immense confusion.
The Department for Education has previously said decisions on school closures and openings are based on new infections, positivity rates, and pressures on the NHS.
Some 53,285 new Covid cases and a further 613 deaths were reported by the UK government on Friday. This does not include data from Northern Ireland or Wales, or the number of deaths from Scotland – as these are not being published on certain days during the Christmas and New Year period.
What is happening with schools in January?
The start of term has already been delayed for millions of pupils across the UK.
Secondary schools in England will stagger their return after Christmas. Pupils taking exams in 2021 will now start on 11 January, with other year groups returning in person on 18 January. Most primary schools in England will return on 4 January, but in London and some surrounding areas they will not open for most pupils until 18 January.
In Wales, local councils have been told they can be “flexible” with when they open. According to councils, many schools aim to return for face-to-face lessons from 11 January, with some fully open on 6 January.
In Northern Ireland, primary school pupils will be taught online until 11 January. In secondary schools, years 8 to 11 will be taught online throughout January. Years 12 to 14 will return to school after the first week of January.
In Scotland, the Christmas holidays have been extended to 11 January, and the following week will be online learning only. A full return to face-to-face learning is planned for 18 January.