Lancashire teacher blasts "gamble" of fully reopening schools next month

The South Ribble-based teacher who chairs the health and safety group on the country's largest education union has described the decision to fully reopen all schools on the same day next month as “a complete gamble”.

Monday, 22nd February 2021, 9:40 pm

Ian Watkinson, from the National Education Union (NEU), says that the move flies in the face of the Prime Minister’s assertion that lockdown-lifting measures will be undertaken on the basis of “data not dates”.

He was speaking after Boris Johnson briefed the Commons on his plan for schools to welcome back all pupils from 8th March. They have been open only to vulnerable children and the children of key workers on all but one day so far this year.

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Ian Watkinson, Lancashire and Merseyside representative on the National Education Union's executive committee

The Prime Minister told MPs: “Based on our assessment of the current data...I can tell the House that, two weeks from now, pupils and staff in all schools and further education settings can safely return to face-to-face teaching.”

However, Mr. Watkinson said that the claim did not reflect the reality in Lancashire.

“The number of cases in schools in the county went up, week-on week, all the way through January.

“They have now started to come down, but we’ve still got around 1,000 children isolating - and that’s just when schools are partially open. What do people think is going to happen when everybody is sent back?

“It appears that we're taking a punt and setting ourselves up for another yo-yo period of lockdown and disruption,” said Mr. Watkinson.

Under new Department for Education guidance, all secondary pupils will be tested three times in school and then once at home during their first fortnight back in class, using rapid-turnaround lateral flow tests. From then on, they will be expected to take twice-weekly tests at home using the same technology, which analysis has previously shown detects around 59 percent of positive cases.

Pupils will be able to return to school upon their first negative test result.

There will be no asymptomatic testing of primary school pupils.

It has also been recommended for the first time that secondary-age students wear face masks in the classroom “unless social distancing can be maintained” - or where doing so would impact on a pupil’s ability to take part in a lesson.

This is an extension of a previous recommendation for masks to be worn when students are moving through communal areas of their school - and comes with guidance on the safe use of masks, including a requirement to keep them in sealable plastic bags in between use and to clean hands before and after touching them.

However, Ian Watkinson says that masking in the classroom should be the norm - and also apply in primary schools. It is one of many mitigation measures which he says is missing from the government’s plans - including better ventilation and investment in so-called “Nightingale classrooms”, larger facilities to enable social distancing.

He added that a phased return to school should have been pursued - based on infections levels in different areas.

“The Independent SAGE group set out a traffic light system similar to one in Norway, where if cases are above 100 per 100,000 people, you remain open only to key worker children.

“At a rate of between 50 and 100, you then start with rotas, alternating between home and classroom learning - so you ease your way back in,” explained Mr. Watkinson, who is a primary school teacher and also Lancashire's representative on the NEU's national executive committee.

Preston’s case rate in the week to 17th February was 239 - the highest in Lancashire, which, at 156, is itself above the England average of 125.

Commenting on the full reopening of schools in a fortnight, Lancashire County Council's cabinet member for children, young people and schools, Phillippa Williamson, said: "Staff in our schools have done a tremendous job supporting vulnerable children and children of key workers at school and by delivering remote learning throughout this lockdown.

"They will continue to support learning until all our pupils and young people are safely back in school.

"Our schools have put measures in place to support children safely and help prevent the spread of the virus.

"We know this has been a difficult time, but it is vital for schools to follow government guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in our community," County Cllr Williamson added.