In the first glimmer of hope, a senior minister hinted that younger children could be allowed back soon after the February half-term, but was unable to give any clue when secondary schools, or pupils facing key exams, will return.
Labour’s whips tweeted: “Where’s Gavin Williamson? There’s an urgent question in Parliament today which is of huge importance to millions of students, parents, teachers & staff looking for answers on the Government’s plans for the reopening of educational settings. Gavin Williamson isn’t turning up.”
Robert Halfon, the education select committee chair, told the Evening Standard: “Nothing is more important than an A to Z education route map out of coronavirus.
“A long time after this pandemic swamp is over, if action is not taken and our schools don’t reopen sooner, pupils will be mired in a ditch of educational poverty, and harm to mental health and general well-being. The whole mission of the Government should be focused every day on how to get our children back in school again.”
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Pressure also grew from MPs and school leaders for teachers to be vaccinated against the virus as a vital step to ensuring their safety in classes of up to 30.
The stalled plan to check pupils using lateral flow tests, which give results in 20 minutes, was seen as a key weapon, along with a properly functioning test-and-trace system. Senior Conservative MP Sir Robert Syms urged: “It is vital schools go back or we will blight children’s futures. If we have to vaccinate teachers early to achieve this, then so be it.”
Ministers are anxious not to announce plans for schools that would have to be broken if infections suddenly went up — having suffered a backlash when schools opened on January 4 for just one day before lockdown. Experts say vaccinations would have to be backed up by other measures, like tests and proper tracing, because they would take several weeks to roll out and be effective.
Steve Chalke, head of the Oasis Academy Trust chain, said: “Vaccine for all school staff is important.” He said most school closures in the autumn were caused by staff sickness.
Ministers including Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, have suggested that teachers could be bumped up the queue for vaccines along with police officers and shopworkers once the four priority groups for jabs are completed in mid-February.
Lord Blunkett, the veteran former education secretary, said he doubted whether Mr Williamson, pictured right, was still in charge of the decision on when schools could go back. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “We need an absolute national focus, throwing everything at it. I want government to step up. I suspect decisions are now out of the hands of the Secretary of State.”
Government sources stress that decisions on schools are wrapped up in the wider decisions on lockdown — and that chances cannot be taken at a time when thousands are dying and patients close to overwhelming the NHS. Nadhim Zahawi, the minister for vaccination, raised hopes that junior schools or infants classes could go back relatively quickly.
Among plans that are understood to be being considered by ministers are allowing selected classes and younger pupils to go back first, echoing the unlocking of schools after the first shutdown last June.
Mr Zahawi said studies showing “much lower” infection rates at primary schools had been “encouraging”. The minister told BBC Breakfast: “The Prime Minister has made it a priority that schools are the first thing to come back. We’ve seen some encouraging data from Public Health England, and the Prime Minister reviews the data all the time, around primary schools.
“The infection rates are much lower among primary school children than secondary — I think it is five times higher in secondary schools. I think once we see the national infection rates continue to drop — we still have 37,000 people in hospital with Covid — but once we get to a place where schools can be safely reopened, it will be the first thing we do.”
A government source said: “The Education Secretary has been clear that schools will be first to go back. Education is a priority.
“As soon as conditions allow restrictions to be eased, we will get all pupils back into classes.”
But Labour shadow schools minister Wes Streeting questioned whether schools were being prioritised by the Government, telling Today: “The Prime Minister said yesterday that he was looking at, and hoping to ease restrictions from mid-February, but then later the same day Downing Street was saying that schools may not reopen until Easter. That does not sound to me like education being the priority.”
London headteachers and education experts said vaccinating teachers would help schools reopen as soon as possible.
They warned that continued closures are “draining the spirits” of teachers and pupils, and creating an “educational and wellbeing time bomb”.
It comes as London schools that offered to act as vaccination hubs for teachers are still waiting for a response from the Government. Daniel Wright, head of the London Oratory School, called for teachers to be vaccinated. He said: “Schools must open as speedily as possible. The risks to the quality of education and the overall flourishing of pupils is seriously impeded by continued closure, despite the best efforts of pupils, staff and parents to ‘make-do’ with remote learning.”
He said schools are on standby with lateral flow testing kits to manage pupils back into school, and added: “Only a swift return to school will prevent us from reaping the medium and long-term consequences of depleted pupil development.”
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