Anger at media speculation over May school re-opening

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There is anger and frustration among teachers and school leaders this week after wild media speculation over the imminent re-opening of schools.

Over the weekend, reports in the national press speculated that ministers had drawn up plans to re-open schools on May 11.

The reports included suggestions that pupils of different ages would be taught at different times or in alternating weeks, with primary pupils and those in years 10 and 12 being prioritised.

Claims even suggested that schools could be asked to open over the summer holidays.

However, education secretary Gavin Williamson was emphatic in his response when he gave the daily Downing Street press briefing on Sunday, April 19 (DfE, 2020a).

He said: “I want nothing more than to get schools back to normal, make sure that children are sat around learning and experiencing the joy of being at school. But I can’t give you a date.

“We will work with the sector to consider how best to re-open schools, nurseries and colleges when the time is right.”

He pledged to give schools “proper notice” to allow them to prepare for re-opening and he said there were “no plans” to ask schools to open over the summer.

He added: “There are currently no plans to have schools open over the summer period and we haven’t been working on plans to have them open over the summer period.”

But the press speculation has left a bitter taste in the mouth for many working in schools.

Writing in our sister magazine SecEd this week, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said that we should not re-open to a larger percentage of the student population “until it is as safe as possible to do so”.

A petition launched by the NEU calling for the prime minister to re-open schools only “when it is safe” has now collected more than 174,000 signatures. It lists a number of questions that the NEU would like answers to before a decision on re-opening is made, including about the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE).

In her article for SecEd, Dr Bousted said: “Much has been said in the media of schools providing the way out of the lockdown because young people do not get very ill when they catch the virus.

“Such loose talk costs lives. Because teachers and support staff, and all the adults who work in school can get very ill with the virus, some fatally so.”

The NEU has called for guarantees on PPE in schools and wants large-scale testing and contact-tracing in place before re-opening happens.

The National Association of Head Teachers, meanwhile, called the media speculation “irresponsible”, warning that it was “causing confusion and fear”.

General secretary Paul Whiteman said: “I am pleased that the secretary of state for education has moved to set the record straight immediately.

“Any return to school must be led by the best scientific and medical advice available. But any return to school must be planned in dialogue with the profession and be accompanied by robust safety measures for pupils, parents, school staff and the wider community.

“The current frenzy of speculation about schools clearly comes from people outside the education arena demonstrating a profound misunderstanding of schools and the education context. A return to school is not a matter for debate it is a question for science.

“Instructing school leaders and their teams to return without including them in the planning stages or sharing proper safety arrangements would be extremely reckless.”

Teaching union Voice has also condemned the speculation. General secretary Deborah Lawson said: “Such speculation was premature, misleading, and generated anxiety across the school workforce.”

The weekend’s media reports also claimed that other options being planned for included a June 1 re-opening date. However, Mr Williamson said that schools and colleges would not re-open to all pupils until the government’s five tests had been met. These are:

  1. Protecting the NHS from being overwhelmed.
  2. Falling Covid-19 death rates.
  3. A decreasing rate of infection
  4. Adequate testing and PPE capacity
  5. Confidence that a second peak of infections can be avoided.

On PPE, Mr Williamson refused to be drawn, referred to existing government guidance on social distancing in schools, which states: “The scientific advice indicates that educational staff do not require personal protective equipment. The advice for schools, colleges and childcare settings is to follow steps on social distancing, handwashing and other hygiene measures, and cleaning of surfaces.” (DfE, 2020b)

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