Kerry McCarthy Labour MP for Bristol East
Many parents and teachers have got in touch to share their concerns about Covid transmission in schools and the implications this will have for pupils, staff and parents, as well as wider society. This is particularly important now due to the high and still growing rate of new Covid cases and the new strain, which appears to be significantly more infectious, particularly in school children.
It is still worth noting the new strain does not appear to produce more severe symptoms – the main concern is that it is far more transmissible – and children overwhelmingly still do not suffer serious health implications from Covid-19. However, I fear as a result of the new strain, it may not be possible to reduce the R rate to below 1 whilst schools are open, at least without further measures being put in place. The safety of staff and their exposure to the virus, is of course, also a major concern. The Government has dropped its support for shielding except in Tier 4, so I am particularly concerned that staff with underlying health conditions may be forced to go into work and will be exposed to the virus.
The Government has failed to make schools Covid-secure, despite teaching unions pushing for guidance on this since the summer and the virus being present in the UK since March. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson completely failed to prepare schools for January opening at a time there was always going to be a higher Covid rate following the relaxation over the Christmas period. In announcing just before the Christmas break that mass testing programmes would be rolled out in schools, he gave senior leaders little time to prepare. Since then, he has announced that secondary schools will not re-open for most students until 18th January, but did nothing to allay concerns about the imminent re-opening of primary schools.
I have just attended a National Education Union Zoom conversation to hear the union’s concerns; Unison was also represented on the call. I have also been liaising with senior leaders at Bristol City Council, who are having conversations today with local headteachers about the plans for their schools. The Council has confirmed it will support headteachers who choose not to re-open their schools following the necessary risk assessments and I support this position. I have previously written to Education Ministers to convey my concern about the impact re-opening schools will have on the spread of Covid-19, and inadequate support being given to schools to help them prepare for this.
I think delaying the re-opening all schools to give them the time to prepare for mass-testing is probably the best possible move. The Government needs to provide further support to make schools Covid secure (and this was something that was stressed strongly during the NEU call, that many schools are overcrowded and poorly ventilated) whilst ensuring every child is able to learn remotely. There must also be financial support for parents who are unable to go to work when their child’s school has closed, and Labour’s shadow Chancellor has called for this to happen today. It will probably be necessary for schools to remain open for the children of key workers, as happened during the first lockdown, but I would expect schools still to be able to get themselves ready for mass-testing whilst operating at this reduced capacity.
Closing schools will, however, have a devastating impact upon many children, who miss out on crucial educational experiences and interactions with their peers at a formative time in their lives. Some children simply cannot learn effectively from home. Previous school closures have already meant many children are well behind in their education and this has a disproportionate impact for those from the poorest families who often already face educational disadvantage. For these reasons, I do think school closures must be a last resort and there must be attempts to ensure the time schools are closed is kept to a minimal, but I do think some delays to re-opening are now inevitable and a proper plan must be put in place.
In terms of the vaccine roll-out, it is right the first priority for the vaccine goes to people who are most at risk of Covid-19, e.g. the elderly and people in care homes. In the next stage of the roll-out, when people’s occupations (outside of NHS staff) are considered, all teaching staff (including teaching assistants) must be given priority for a vaccine. I do not know how long this will take, however, and do not think we can justify keeping all schools closed until then if doing so will mean schools are closed for many months.
I have previously written to the Education Secretary to state my view that no parent should face fines if their child does not attend school due to health concerns. Unfortunately, the Schools Minister simply responded by reiterating the importance of ensuring children go to school. I hope the Government will now reconsider this and be sympathetic towards parents who do not feel it is safe to send their child to school.
The Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, has called on the Prime Minister to introduce a full national lockdown within a matter of hours, which is clearly needed to tackle the spread of the virus, and has said that school closures need to be a part of that. We are still seeing the virus rise in areas which are in Tier 3 and 4. We are expecting an announcement from the PM tonight and Parliament is being recalled on Wednesday. I hope the Government will introduce further measures to control the virus then. Going into national lockdown will be tough, but if it’s what needed to keep people safe until the vaccine is rolled-out, then it’s what has to be done.
This is a fast-moving situation and I am involved in all kinds of discussions about this – for example, I will be joining a Zoom call on the vaccination programme this evening with the Government minister, Nadim Zahawi – but I will try to keep constituents updated as and when I can. Please, as always, do get in touch if you have any concerns or questions, and I will do what I can to help.