Teachers and support staff join calls for schools to close as part of second national lockdown

Ellen Manning
·5-min read
File photo dated 27/11/19 of school children. The impact of the coronavirus lockdown on UK pupils whose mother tongue is not English is to be the subject of a study, amid concern that school closures may harm their learning of the language.
Unions and MPs are calling for schools and colleges to be closed as part of a second national lockdown. (PA)

More than 135,000 teachers and support staff have backed calls for schools and colleges to be closed as part of national lockdown measures in England.

The National Education Union (NEU) said it has received huge support for its calls following Boris Johnson’s announcement of a second national lockdown, while Greater Manchester Mayor agreed with the view, saying it would help avoid large areas of the north being put straight into Tier 3 afterwards.

On Saturday the Prime Minister said non-essential shops and hospitality will have to close from Thursday until 2 December in an effort to bring down infection rates, but schools and colleges will remain open.

The move has sparked calls from unions and scientists to include the education sector among the lockdown, with many warning that figures show it is responsible for the rise in infection rates.

Following the announcement, the NEU launched a campaign for schools and colleges to be closed and on Sunday the union said more than 135,000 teaching and support staff had backed its call to close schools and colleges, while 1,000 new members had joined the union and 10,000 people had written to their MP in one hour.

The union pointed to latest data from the Office for National Statistics which estimated that 1% of primary pupils and 2% of secondary pupils had the virus and those levels had increased dramatically since wider opening in September.

It said its analysis of the figures showed that virus levels are now nine times higher amongst primary pupils and 50 times higher amongst secondary pupils.

Watch: Boris Johnson orders national lockdown for England

Speaking ahead of Saturday’s announcement, NEU Joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney said: “It is clear from ONS data that schools are an engine for virus transmission.

“It would be self-defeating for the government to impose a national lockdown, whilst ignoring the role of schools as a major contributor to the spread of the virus.

“Such a lockdown would impose pain on the whole community - but not be as effective as it could be if schools were included. Ignoring the role of schools and colleges in the spread of the virus is likely to lead to the need for even longer lockdowns in future.”

Similar calls have also been made by the NASUWT-The Teachers’ Union, whose General Secretary Patrick Roach said: “There is widespread evidence of rising Covid-19 transmissions within schools and that opening schools fully has acted as a vector for coronavirus transmission in the wider community.

“It is vital that the government recognises that schools and colleges must be part of a national strategy to tackle the continuing spread of the virus.”

He added: “The government’s view that it remains the case that schools should remain open fully will no doubt be viewed with concern by many parents and those working in schools, especially if the government does not come forward in the coming days with additional Covid-safety measures for schools.

“In light of the mounting evidence, it is critical that, where there is an outbreak of Covid-19 transmission in a school, employers and public health bodies act swiftly and without hesitation to protect public health by sending pupils and staff home.

Calls to close schools have been backed by MPs including Diane Abbott, who said without taking the step, the government was “trying to fight a deadly virus with one hand tied behind us”, while Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said schools should be closed to “avoid a scenario where large parts of the North West are simply put back in Tier 3 coming out of this”.

He said: “I would suggest a period of two weeks’ closure towards the second half of November so that schools have time to prepare online learning, but that would create the conditions for the biggest drop in cases that we could achieve and it would then create the conditions for some kind of Christmas for more families because they need it right now.”

Sir Jeremy Farrar, who sits on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), also warned that secondary school transmission is “high”, saying keeping schools open was a big difference between the forthcoming lockdown and the first earlier this year.

He told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show: “We know that transmission, particularly in secondary schools is high.

“Personally I think this is definitely the lockdown to put in place now but if that transmission, particularly in secondary schools, continues to rise then that may have to be revisited in the next four weeks in order to get R below one and the epidemic shrinking.”

But on Sunday Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove suggested the government wanted to keep pupils in classrooms even if it meant extending the lockdown.

He told Andrew Marr: “I do believe that we want to keep schools open and I believe that the measures that we are putting in place will enable us to do so.”

Labour has also said it supports keeping schools open, with party leader Sir Keir Starmer saying they “must stay open but we’ve got to manage the risk”.

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