Boris Johnson has said that primary school children in England should go back to their classrooms this week where possible – however a number of schools in the North East have decided to remain shut.
The Prime Minister appeared on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday and confirmed the Government’s position.
He said he had “no doubt” that classrooms were safe and that the risk to young people was “very, very small” amid calls from teaching unions to close all schools for the next two weeks.
He added: ” Schools are safe. It is very, very important to stress that. I would advise all parents thinking about what to do, look at where your area is, overwhelmingly you’ll be in a part of the country where primary schools tomorrow will be open.”
The move has been criticised by many and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) union, along with the Association of School and College Leaders, have made preliminary steps in legal proceedings.
UNISON has said the reopening of all schools in England should be delayed by two weeks to minimise the spread of the coronavirus. Teaching unions have also not ruled out striking over plans to reopen schools.
On Sunday afternoon, a number of schools in the region announced they would remain closed on Monday, including Kelvin Grove Primary in Bensham, Bamburgh School in South Shields, Delves Lane Primary School in Consett, Lanchester E.P. Primary and Bowburn Primary School in County Durham.
ChronicleLive asked all local authorities in the North East what advice they had for schools and parents. Their responses are below.
Mark Patton, assistant director of education and skills at Newcastle City Council, said: “Throughout the pandemic we have supported our schools to deliver education safely to children across the city and that will continue to be the case.
“Our advice to primary schools is to review their risk assessments and we will support them in whatever decision they make. The same applies to secondary schools which will initially only open for children of key workers, with appropriate bubbles in place.
“We know headteachers and their governing bodies have been working throughout the festive break to ensure everything is in place for the safe return of pupils.
“In Newcastle, we have every confidence that headteachers, staff and their governing bodies will do what is right for their school community, as they have done throughout this crisis, and will continue to communicate directly with parents.
“We thank all the school communities in the city for everything they have done and are doing, and we will continue to support them in whatever way we can.”
In most cases, the first day back for primary schools in Newcastle is Monday, January 4 but, for schools with planned teacher training days, the first day back will be Tuesday, January 5. Parents should check their child’s school website if they are in doubt.
Secondary and high schools
There are different return dates for different groups of children in secondary and high schools.
From Monday, only pupils who are vulnerable or who are children of key workers will return to the classroom, with appropriate bubbles in place.
All other pupils will study from home, with priority for remote learning given to exam students in Years 11 and 13. Free school meals will continue to be provided to those who are eligible.
From Monday, January 11, students in Years 11 and 13 will return to school with those year group bubbles re-established. Pupils in other year groups will remain at home with remote learning provided and free school meals for those eligible.
From January 18, all other children in Years 7, 8, 9, 10 and 12 will return to school with year group bubbles re-established.
Children who are due to sit written exams at the beginning of term who may be affected by the changes to start dates will be contacted by their school.
Parents and carers are advised to check their child’s school website for any changes to arrangements published before the Christmas break.
Special schools and alternative provision schools
These schools are expected to open as planned from next week with no changes to start dates. There is some flexibility for return to school arrangements for secondary special schools.
Parents and carers should contact their child’s school or college if their need any further information or advice. Further updates will be given as soon as information becomes available.
Martin Gannon, Gateshead Council leader, said: “Gateshead Council recognises that all of Gateshead’s schools have remained open throughout the pandemic and have been magnificent supporting our most vulnerable children and the children of key workers. We know that they will continue to do so.
“Regarding schools reopening next week, the position is extremely confused and complex.
“The Secretary of State for education has already announced that all London schools should not reopen (except of vulnerable and key workers children). The main teaching trade union, the NEU, has called for all schools in Tier3/4 areas to be treated the same way.
“If schools in T3/4 do reopen the NEU has instructed their reps to advise their members who have concerns about health and safety to invoke section 44 ofthe the ERA.
“Gateshead Council cannot instruct schools not to reopen. This is a decision for the governors of each school on the advice of their head teacher.
“However, we are concerned, given the current situation, about both staff and pupil welfare and safety.
“We recognise the enormous strain and pressure being placed on school governors and head teachers.
“We have therefore issued a statement to all of Gateshead schools. Any school in Gateshead that decides that at the present time they are unable to extend provision beyond vulnerable children and the children of key workers, who decide that they cannot open the school fully inline with government instruction will have the full support and backing of Gateshead Council
“The health and safety of staff and pupils must and always will be our primary concern.”
Coun Olwyn Gunn, cabinet member for children and young people’s services at Durham County Council, said: “Since the outbreak of the pandemic we have continuously worked with schools to prioritise the education of our children and young people, including establishing remote learning when necessary.
“Given the confusion over Government communication and guidance to schools, we believe the Secretary of State must provide clear and consistent information to schools in tier 4 that includes a move to remote learning for all pupils (excluding vulnerable children and those of key workers) and a planned return to school on 18 January.
“In the absence of changes to Government guidance we are clear that any decision on school closure should be made by school leaders and their governing bodies based on individual risk assessments at local level.
“Risk assessments continue to be updated and need to take account of a range of factors including local infection rates, availability of staff as well as the school’s physical environment and organisation.
“We will continue to support all of our schools based on established locally derived information along with national guidance and best practice. While our infection rates are currently lower than London we feel consistency is needed for all tier 4 areas.
“Our school leaders and staff have provided outstanding commitment over the last nine months to enable continuity of education as far as possible and a safe environment in which pupils can learn and staff can work. If school leaders believe that it is not safe to open their schools to all pupils due to their risk assessment we will support them in their decision.
“I would like to thank all school staff for their continuing commitment to the education of our children and young people. School leaders have been placed in an impossible position by the Secretary of State and national leadership from him is urgently needed.”
Guidance for parents
“We understand that this is a very difficult time for our parents, carers and school staff as well as all of our young people, but if we all work together we can help to reduce the infection rates in County Durham.
“We would ask that you check your individual school’s website or parentmail system for the latest information and any updates relating to closures.”
Coun Tracey Dixon, leader of South Tyneside Council, said: “I want to thank our school communities for everything that they have done and continue to do to ensure that children across South Tyneside can be educated as safely as possible.
“Headteachers and their governing bodies have been working throughout the festive break to ensure everything is in place for the safe return of pupils but parents, carers and teachers may have growing concerns about returning to school in the current climate.
“Throughout the pandemic we have supported our schools to deliver education safely and we will continue to do so.
“Ultimately a decision of whether or not to open is one for the school governing body and each school will have its own set of circumstances to consider. However, I can confirm that South Tyneside Council will support schools in whatever decision they make.
“We know that headteachers, staff and their governing bodies will do what is right for their school community, as they have done throughout this crisis. Schools will continue to communicate directly with parents.”
Cath McEvoy-Carr, executive director of adult social care and children’s services at Northumberland County Council, said: “The health, wellbeing and safety of Northumberland’s students, teaching and support staff remains our number one priority.
“Our teaching staff have worked incredibly hard right throughout this pandemic to ensure that pupils continue with their education, either in school or online.
“Our schools also have robust risk assessments and health and safety measures in place and have done absolutely everything in their power to ensure the safety of pupils and staff.
“These are very challenging times for everyone, and some difficult decisions have to be made.
“We have every confidence in our headteachers and governing bodies to make the right decisions for their school community and will of course support any Northumberland school that feels unable to open due to their local risk assessment and staff availability.
“We would ask that parents check their child’s school’s website for the latest information and any updates relating to closures. Schools will also be contacting parents in their usual way if they are to remain closed and move to online learning.”
A spokesperson for Sunderland City Council said: “We have advised schools to review their risk assessments with their governing bodies, in order to consider their ability to fully open the school.
“The local authority is making professional support available to schools so that they can draw on all relevant advice in reaching a decision.
“The impact of the Union position will be better understood tomorrow morning (Monday) and any school closures will be fully publicised by the schools.”
Jacqui Old, North Tyneside Council’s director of children’s and adult services, said: “We know this is an anxious time for parents, carers, teachers and all school staff and we are committed to continue to support our schools as we have throughout the pandemic .
“We believe every school is unique and trust our school leaders to make a professional judgement on what is right for children, families and staff based on staffing availability.
“We will support schools to review their risk assessments and support their staff and pupils.
“Our school communities have been fantastic in difficult circumstances and our thanks go once again to them for their dedication to the young people of North Tyneside.”