Barnsley has echoed the government’s position on allowing schools to reopen for early years, reception and year one and six pupils from Monday, ahead of a full formal review of lockdown measures on Thursday.
‘Local lockdowns’ could be introduced in areas such as schools and workplaces which see flare-ups, to minimse any second waves of infection.
But this would require a proper system of testing, tracking and tracing - something which is ‘very far’ from being in place in schools, according to education bosses concerned the plans could put children at higher risk.
A spokesperson for the National Education Union’s Barnsley branch said: “We are very concerned Barnsley hasn’t taken the position of other authorities, many of which fully don’t expect their schools to reopen on Monday. We are not opposed to schools being open at all - but it must be safe to do so. An early return to school would be a mechanism for increasing the likelihood of a second spike. We shouldn’t be using kids as guinea pigs.”
The NEU believes before a move to reopen schools there must be evidence of Covid-19 cases falling, a full national plan, acess to testing, protocols for whole schools should a case occur, and protection for the most vulnerable.
“Those tests aren’t going to be met by Monday,” continued the spokesperson.
“We’ve spoken to a lot of parents concerned not just for the health of their children, who can’t effectively observe social distancing, but also for them bringing infection back into the home.
“With the best will in the world, children are social creatures who need other people and trying to keep them isolated is almost impossible.”
According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, there have been 65 deaths due to coronavirus among school staff nationally. Many schools in Barnsley have remained open for vulnerable children and those of key workers, and some have provided online support to staff and students.
Under pressure from several local authorities, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has admitted schools may not be able to reopen as planned - with secondary schools’ planned reopening, with staggered start times, already pushed back to mid-June.
Stephanie Peacock, MP for Barnsley East and former teacher, spoke with NEU representatives last week.
“Schools shouldn’t be opened before there are measures in place that will protect the wellbeing of children and staff,” she said.
“Right now disadvantaged children are being left behind. I will keep pushing to get them the resources they need as well as a safety plan from the government for the wider reopening of schools that outlines the scientific advise it is following.”
According to the local branch of UNISON, which represents most school support staff in the borough, only two per cent of the union’s members are reassured that a return to schools on Monday would be safe.
UNISON regional organiser Robin Symonds said: “UNISON, like the other education unions, believes the wider opening of schools is premature and we are doing all we can to ensure adequate measures are in place to protect the health of children and staff.
“UNISON is clear that the current situation is not the fault of schools but ultimately, workers are entitled to a safe workplace and we will support any members who believe that their health and safety is at serious risk.”
Coun Margaret Bruff, cabinet spokesperson for children’s services, said: “From the start of the pandemic, Barnsley schools have continued to open.
“Over the coming weeks, our approach, in line with the government’s gradual easing of lockdown measures, is to support schools and early years settings to gradually expand the number of pupils attending in a way that protects the health and wellbeing of both children and staff.
“We know children’s wellbeing is enhanced from spending time with their friends and from the social interaction and structure that school provides.
“We believe that it’s important for children to go back to their school or early years setting, to avoid lost learning and the significant impact that this may have on their future outcomes.”
"We know that people have lots of questions about the re-opening of schools and early years settings from the 1 June 2020 if they are safe to do so.
“There is a lot more info on a dedicated page including how we’ve been working constructively and collaboratively with parents/carers, teachers and trade unions, at barnsley.gov.uk/safe-reopening-of-schools."