Schools won't open in September unless government drops social distancing rules, union leaders warn

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·3-min read
LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 10: A child maintains social distancing measures while painting a rainbow during a lesson at Earlham Primary School, which is part of the Eko Trust on June 10, 2020 in London, England. As part of Covid-19 lockdown measures, Earlham Primary School is teaching smaller ‘bubbles’ of students, to help maintain social distancing measures. School staff have put into place many safety measures such as corridor signage for a one way system, regular supervised handwashing, temperature checks on arrival and enhanced cleaning regimes to keep pupils and staff as safe as possible. Bubbles of pupils are limited to six and each have their own well-ventilated space. The Government have announced it is set to drop plans for all English primary pupils to return to school before the end of the summer. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
Some Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils have already returned to school – but union leaders have warned all pupils may not return as planned in September. (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Schools won’t reopen in September if the government’s social distancing measures remain in place, union leaders have warned.

MPs were told on Wednesday that maintaining two-metre social distancing and limits on class sizes would require double the amount of classrooms and teachers.

The union bosses called for Downing Street to publish a recovery plan in the event of schools not reopening.

Last week the government ditched plans for all primary school pupils to return before the summer holidays, with education secretary Gavin Williamson refusing to promise all primary and secondary pupils would return for the new academic year in September.

It followed weeks of tension between the government and unions over reopening plans.

Some Tory MPs have accused unions of caring more about making the government look bad than getting children back to school.

Speaking about the two-metre rule on Tuesday, Boris Johnson said we must “proceed carefully” but hinted it may be relaxed – saying “watch this space”.

A number of education union and association bosses were quizzed on the matter at the House of Commons education committee on Wednesday.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, told MPs: “If the government retains its social distancing rules, they can’t [reopen].

“That’s why we then need to look at education and an education recovery plan which is focused on more than school buildings.”

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, also warned “the maths just doesn’t work”.

She said: “If it’s at all possible and considered safe then absolutely, we want all children to be back in school from September.

“But we’re not able to do that at the moment within the government’s protective measures guidance. The maths just doesn’t work.

“If you can only have up to 15 children in a class and you’re bringing back all children, you need twice as many classrooms and twice as many teachers.”

Screen grab of Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by PA Video/PA Images via Getty Images)
The potential relaxing of the two-metre social distancing rule is fraught with political difficulties for Boris Johnson. (PA Video/PA Images via Getty Images)

The potential relaxing of the two-metre rule is fraught with political difficulties for Johnson.

The prime minister is under huge pressure from a number of Conservative backbenchers to relax the rule in order to kickstart the economy and allow schools to fully reopen.

However, the PM’s top scientific advisers – Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Chris Whitty – were reported by The Sunday Times to be on “resignation watch” regarding the potential relaxation of the rules.

Sir Patrick said of the two-metre distancing on Tuesday: “Two metres is safer than one metre, but it’s not an absolute, it’s a relative and obviously the closer you get the riskier it is, so it’s a risk assessment.”

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