Labour sets out measures needed for full reopening of schools in March

Elliot Chappell
© James Jiao/shutterstock.com

Kate Green has called on the government to vaccinate all education workers during the February half-term, introduce ‘Nightingale classrooms’ and ensure that schools are supported to deliver effective mass testing.

In a letter to Gavin Williamson, the Shadow Education Secretary has demanded a “delivery plan” for the full reopening of schools and said announcing a return date without specifying any measures was “simply not good enough”.

The Labour frontbencher said: “Time and time again the government’s incompetence has let down children, families, and education staff. It is simply not enough to set out a date for school return with no plan to deliver.

“We need a national effort to get all children back into school with a credible delivery plan from the government which includes vaccinating school staff over half term and sets out measures to help make schools Covid-secure.”

Green is urging Williamson to “make safeguarding education a national priority”, telling the minister that education staff should be “key partners for your department in getting children back to school smoothly”.

Labour leader Keir Starmer pushed used Prime Minister’s Questions this week to push Boris Johnson on prioritising key workers in the vaccine roll-out and giving all school staff a first dose during the half-term break.

Under the opposition party’s proposed plan, critical workers such as police officers, teachers and prison staff would be prioritised for the vaccine alongside those aged between 50 and 65 and the extremely clinically vulnerable.

The demand from Labour followed NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens saying there is a “legitimate discussion” to be had on “whether or not there are certain other groups who should at that point also receive priority”.

Angela Rayner argued on Thursday morning that AstraZeneca has said it could deliver more vaccines and therefore “the government needs to really ramp it up”. Polling shows 70% of the public support prioritising vaccinating teachers.

Green has also asked Williamson to outline the steps being taken to increase the space available for teaching, including setting up Nightingale classrooms, or “vacant and publicly available buildings to create additional space for teaching”.

She criticised as “chaotic” the announcement, days before the end of term in December, of the roll-out of mass testing in schools and demanded that Williamson “guarantee schools will have the personnel, space and capacity to carry out testing”.

The Shadow Education Secretary urged that testing be “in line with scientific advice”, highlighting that the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency refused to sign off on the plan earlier this month.

The UK regulator told the government in mid-January that it had not authorised the daily use of the 30-minute tests proposed by the government due to concerns that negative results of these tests can falsely reassure people.

The intervention from the Shadow Education Secretary comes after Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday that he hopes it will be safe for children to return to classroom across England by the week commencing March 8th.

The Prime Minister’s previous remarks on Monday morning, during which he said “we’ll be deciding before then whether we can be getting schools back”, had sparked confusion and put him at odds with recent comments from his own ministers.

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, on Sunday described the full reopening of schools before Easter as a “hope” rather than an expectation, and warned that the easing of the current lockdown measures is a “long, long, long way” off.

Below is the full text of Kate Green’s letter to Gavin Williamson.

Dear Gavin,

A huge amount of preparation and planning is required in order to ensure that schools can open to all pupils as quickly and as safely as possible, and to build trust and confidence among parents, pupils and staff that the government is up to the challenge. The impact of almost a year of disruption to schooling has the potential to have lifelong scarring effects on a generation of children, and action to address this must be your priority. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said he hoped schools would return to full reopening from 8th March at the earliest. Parents, pupils and staff need clarity and certainty about the government’s plans, and I am writing to you now in the hope you will answer the questions that the schools improvement minister could not or would not answer in the House on Tuesday.

Will you as a matter of urgency set out a credible plan for school reopening which outlines clearly and precisely what you believe needs to happen for schools and other education settings to be able fully to reopen? Both the Health Secretary and schools minister have outlined a range of measures that will inform this decision, such as NHS pressure and capacity, infection rates, and the challenges that are posed by new variants. However, your department has failed to set out the specific benchmarks for these metrics that will determine when schools can welcome all pupils back to the classroom. What are they?

The Health Secretary had previously said that pupils may not return until the summer term, but the Prime Minister has now confirmed he hopes to commence the reopening from 8 March. Can you tell me in what order pupils will return to the classroom? Will it be exam years first, primary schools first, or a regional variation? Will some pupils still be out of school until the summer term?

Can you outline the measures you will implement to ensure that, once fully open, schools will be able to remain open to all pupils? Can you provide a rationale for your decision to rule out the use of rotas to help more children return to the classroom, and publish any underlying scientific advice you have received on this issue?

What steps is your department taking to increase both the amount of space available for teaching, including seeking sites for Nightingale classrooms – using other vacant and publicly available buildings to create additional space for teaching – and to ensure that pupils are taught in settings that are safe, socially distanced, and well ventilated? Will the government review its guidance on the use of face coverings in secondary schools to require these in communal areas and corridors?

After the chaotic announcement of mass testing in schools before Christmas, will you guarantee schools will have the personnel, space and capacity to carry out testing of pupils and staff when they return? Earlier this month, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency expressed concern about the government’s planned testing programme, will you guarantee testing procedures are in line with scientific advice and publish the evidence you hold on this?

Vaccinating school staff would prevent further disruption to pupils’ education, avoiding children being out of school due to staff absence. Labour have called for education staff to be vaccinated in February half term as part of our national effort to reopen schools. Will you commit to implementing this proposal?

For as long as pupils are learning remotely both children and parents need far more support to continue learning and balance the demands of work and supporting their children. Can you guarantee that every child will have the resources they need to access learning remotely? Are you able to give a clear deadline for reaching your target of providing 1.3 million devices, and will they all be in place before February half term?

For parents who are struggling to balance the demands of working and supporting their children’s learning, will you provide a legally enforceable right to request flexible furlough as Labour has called for?

Finally, as we look to the months and years ahead, we cannot allow this generation of young people to become the Covid generation, defined by the learning and opportunities they have lost, and the huge consequences it could have for their life chances. Can you guarantee that all options are on the table for supporting pupils to catch up on the learning they have lost, as a first step to guaranteeing they will not be robbed of opportunity because of the government’s handling of this pandemic? Can you confirm that the £300 million announced by the Prime Minister today represents new, additional, funding, and outline the steps that your department will take to ensure that it reaches those pupils who are most in need of it?

Education staff, from leaders and teachers to teaching assistants and support staff, have done an extraordinary job in immensely difficult circumstances to keep children learning throughout the pandemic, in and outside the classroom. They should be key partners for your department in getting children back to school smoothly. Along with parents and pupil they rightly expect urgent and honest answers. I hope you are able to provide them.

Yours sincerely,

Kate Green MP
Shadow Secretary of State for Education

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