Education correspondent GENE BRODIE on the potentially deadly dilemma facing the borough’s headteachers, parents and youngest pupils
There’s growing doubts – and much scientific evidence – that next Monday is too soon for young children to be expected to go back to school safe from the risk of catching covid-19.
Many schools in Croydon continued to be open through the coronavirus lockdown for the children of key workers, so that their parents could continue to carry out their duties. Now the government is urging schools to reopen on June 1 for some of the youngest pupils, in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.
Croydon has left the decision of whether a school is ready to open to the headteachers, a stance that has been taken based on an internal council report prepared by staff together and the cabinet member for children and education, Alisa Flemming.
That report’s advice has never been published. The National Education Union in Croydon says that other local authorities around the country have given a clearer message to schools.
Croydon has 88 primary schools and according to Tony Newman, the council leader, “Each of these schools is doing a safety plan which in many cases gets you down to class sizes between seven and 15 children.
“From national figures and polling, they don’t think that 30 per cent of parents will send their children back.
“The council position emphatically would be that any staff who didn’t want to go back wouldn’t have to. In terms of pupils, the government has already changed the national legislation that nobody is going to make any children attend.”
Many believe that expecting four- and five-year-olds to “socially distance” in a classroom is an unrealistic goal and one which could put teachers and pupils at unnecessary risk.
Joe Flynn is the father of twins as well as being the Croydon branch secretary of the National Education Union. His children will not be going to school on Monday.
“The union position is that June 1 is too early for people to safely go back,” Flynn said.
“I’ve got a lot of sympathy for headteachers, they don’t want to be in this position, nobody thought the youngest children would be going back. A lot of headteachers aren’t happy about it and are thinking hard about how it could possibly work.”
The NEU thinks that the independent SAGE report released last week should have been a game-changer for schools.
Sir David King, of Independent SAGE, said on releasing the report: “It is clear from the evidence we have collected that June 1 is simply too early to go back. By going ahead with this dangerous decision, the government is further risking the health of our communities and the likelihood of a second spike.”
Independent SAGE says that the risk to children going back to school on June 1 is three times the risk of them being involved in a road traffic fatality. By delaying the return of schools, even by a fortnight, that risk would be halved, and the government’s track and tracing system might even be available and fully functioning by then.
One Croydon teacher told Inside Croydon, “Going into lockdown maybe a week or two weeks later than we could have done probably cost thousands of lives.
“Coming out of lockdown is similar – waiting a week, a fortnight, a month will mean much lower case counts, much less risk, much more chance for contact tracing to work.”
The teacher unions met the council on May 18 and were due to have another meeting with Town Hall leaders following the publication yesterday of the government’s scientific review.
An NEU source told Inside Croydon, “We accept the reality that the local authority can no longer simply instruct headteachers to follow their guidance. We think the LA has facilitated some headteacher meetings which have been helpful and have created some elements of consensus- for example it appears that most secondary schools are delaying wider opening until at least June 8, if not June 15.
“However we have also seen other local authorities around the country give a clearer message to schools. We wrote to the council on May 22 referencing the Independent SAGE guidance and asking them to delay reopening Croydon schools until at least June 15.
“We will continue to put that position to both the council and local academy trusts and we hope and expect positive discussions. Our reps and members are actively auditing school risk assessments against the NEU checklist.
“We believe most headteachers are making sensible decisions under enormous pressure and we think chairs of governors should support them in delaying opening to ensure the maximum possible safety.”
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