Teaching unions have demanded Boris Johnson scrap his plan to reopen all schools in England on March 8 in favour of a more cautious phased return to classrooms.
Nine unions have joined forces in a bid to make the Prime Minister rethink his lockdown exit strategy.
They want the Government to only proceed with any reopening on March 8 if the scientific evidence is ‘absolutely clear’ that it is safe to do so.
They also said that at that point ministers should ‘go no further than a phased return of children and young people’ to allow time to assess the impact on coronavirus infection rates of bringing back limited numbers of pupils.
Meanwhile, the NASUWT teachers union today reiterated its call for teachers and other education staff to be given priority access to coronavirus vaccines.
Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT, said: ‘The NASUWT believes it is in the national interest for the government to prioritise teachers and education staff for access to vaccination.’
The National Education Union said in its proposed recovery plan that the return to schools should see numbers allowed on-site limited while there should also be increased use of face coverings.
It said masks should be worn by secondary school pupils in classrooms as well as in all other areas of the school.
Union bosses are urging Mr Johnson to follow the example of Scotland and Wales where the phased return of some young children to classrooms started this morning.
There is growing speculation that teaching unions could strike if the premier refuses to back down.
But former head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw today demanded unions ‘do as much as is possible’ to get children back into classrooms as he warned of a ‘lost generation’.
Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer warned against industrial action as he said Labour would not support such a move.
Schools across England will reopen on March 8 under Boris Johnson’s lockdown exit strategy
Teaching unions warned the PM at the end of last week that it would be ‘reckless’ to send all children back to school at the same time amid warnings it could cause coronavirus infection rates to spike.
But the Government is set to push ahead with a full reopening, with Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi telling ITV’s GMB programme: ‘March 8 is the date that we want to see all school children being back at school.’
Sir Michael said this morning that unions must work with the Government and teachers to ensure there is a smooth return to in-person learning.
He told GMB: ‘The Government has appointed what they are calling a catch-up tsar, someone called Kevin Collins, who… will be co-ordinating schools’ efforts and pointing to good practice.
‘I’m looking forward to the teacher unions really supporting this, and encouraging their members to do as much as is possible and to go the extra mile to support children.
‘It’s really important that this generation of youngsters is not seen as a lost generation – youngsters who feel that fate has given them a very, very bad hand, and they have suffered accordingly.
‘It’s important they get their confidence back and their self-esteem back and they look forward to the future with optimism.
‘That is why teachers and heads really need to pull together, and the unions as well supporting them, to make sure this generation is no longer seen as a lost generation.’
Sir Keir told LBC Radio this morning that Labour supports reopening all schools in England on March 8.
He said: ‘I want all of our schools ideally open on the 8th of March. That is what the Prime Minister has said and we want to see that ideally happen.’
Asked if he would support unions going on strike over the issue, he replied: ‘I don’t think there should be industrial action.
‘But I do think, the teaching unions are right to stick up for their members who have been through a really hard time in the last 12 months.
‘The stop start schooling, they have been obviously in schools for key workers and there has been a lot of stress and strain on school staff and they feel they haven’t been listened to by the Government.
‘I think Gavin Williamson should get on the phone to the unions and tell them what his plan is so everybody can get round the plan to get our children back to school as soon as possible.’
Union bosses said the Government’s ‘big bang’ approach to bringing back all children at the same time was ‘difficult to understand’.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: ‘We share the Government’s aim of bringing all children back to the classroom as soon as possible, but we remain concerned about the idea of a ‘big bang’ approach of a full return of pupils all at the same time.
Mr Johnson’s plans for easing lockdown have been bolstered by the latest data whihc shows Covid-19 infection rates have continued to drop, with 9,834 more cases reported – a fall of 10 per cent on last week – while the 215 new daily deaths brought Britain’s total up to 120,580
‘This is very different from the plans in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in which a phased return is planned, and it is difficult to understand why the approach in England would go so much further.
Mr Barton added: ‘It is crucial that the return of all pupils to face-to-face education is safe and sustainable and that we don’t end up prolonging a cycle of disruption.’
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, said Mr Johnson needed to make a ‘compelling case’ for his plan.
He said: ‘School leaders want nothing more than a safe return to school for all children but, crucially, that return has to be sustainable.
‘It is better to be cautious than to risk further closures and yet more disruption to children’s education. A third lockdown for schools would be more devastating than taking our time now.’
But Russell Viner, professor of adolescent health at UCL, said it is ‘plausible’ that schools in England can fully reopen on March 8 while keeping the pandemic under control – if the lockdown is maintained for other parts of society and the rapid vaccine rollout continues.
He said: ‘Reopening secondaries fully brings the greatest risk for increasing infections, but may bring the greatest benefits for the mental health and life chances of our children.
‘Schools should be the first part of society to reopen after lockdown. The risks of not reopening schools are high.’
Prof Viner added: ‘Schools undoubtedly play a role in transmission of this pandemic, particularly secondary schools. Yet the evidence suggests that transmission can be very much reduced when effective control measures are used in schools.’
The return of schools in Wales today will see children aged three to seven head back to classrooms. Some vocational college students are also going back.
The Welsh government is planning for the remaining primary school pupils as well as those in years 11 and 13 facing exam years to return from March 15 in a ‘flexible way’.
A similar approach is being taken in Scotland, with children in primaries one to three due back in Scottish schools from today along with some senior secondary pupils who need to do practical work for qualifications.
All children under school age in early learning and childcare are also returning.