For very understandable reasons people are doing all they can to keep schools open. The impact on children of missing out on so much of their education will be immense, and in particular for those children who do not have support and structure at home, or children with complex needs. No one knows this better than teachers themselves, and teaching and support staff have been working incredibly hard to keep schools open and to minimise the impact of when they have had to close.
There are however a number of very understandable concerns from both parents and teachers.
People are asking why, when faced with increasing cases and a new variant, schools are still remaining open. Parents are worried about the risk they and their families are facing, especially if there is a clinically vulnerable person in the household, or in a support bubble. Teachers will be worried about their own health, if they have health conditions.
Clearly there are a range of options the Department will be looking at. When schools were shut in the first lockdown, children of key workers and those from vulnerable families were able to attend. By not having everyone physically present the risk was reduced.
On 30th December I spoke to the Secretary of State for Education. He made some adjustments to the plans to reopen schools, namely:
From 4 January 2021
• The majority of early years, infant, junior and primary phases will return to school as normal. A small number of schools in Tier 4 areas will not reopen on that date. With the exception of vulnerable children, or the children of key workers, all secondary school and sixth form college age children will remain at home and access remote learning from their school or college
From 11 January 2021
• Years 11 and 13 return to face-to-face education
• Other year groups, except for those who are vulnerable or the children of key workers, will remain at home and access remote learning from their school or college
From 18 January 2021
• All pupils in all other year groups return to face-to-face education
• Unless unwell, every child should be back in education in all key stages.
I raised a number of further concerns my constituents had raised with the Department. While I appreciate all these policies are under review, and that further restrictions may well be introduced, I also believe we should appreciate that making further changes at short notice is extremely difficult for the school, parents and the pupils themselves. I have therefore urged that if we do think further restrictions are needed we make such a decision in good time. Teachers have had a great deal to content with, and the more notice we can give them, the better the outcome for the children affected.
If there are to be any further restrictions on schools opening then we must have a clearer understanding of the impact this is having on children and we must supplement plans to enable those pupils to catch up. I am very conscious this may place further demands on teaching staff.
I am also meeting with the vaccines Minister on Monday and will again be raising the issue of vaccinations for teaching staff with him.
There are also efforts being made to introduce rapid testing in schools. Any plans need to be realistic in terms of what teaching and support staff can achieve.
I would also suggest that any teacher who is concerned about their own health and is not currently shielding speaks to their employer and also their GP. The public health policy uses a specific definition of extremely clinically vulnerable, it may be the case that people do not meet the specific definition of that, but may still need to shield, e.g. they were not in the original GP data when these lists were drawn up at the start of the pandemic, or their circumstances may have changed.
Schools have been innovative and flexible during this time, and where there are DfE rules that are a barrier to that we have raised them, for example to enable teachers on particular contracts to provide online learning.
All would agree closing schools has to be a last resort. The damage of doing so is considerable and lasting. So we have to do all we can- through testing, through vaccinations, through a phased approach- to try and avoid that.
There may be good reasons why two places in the same tier might have different policies in place, for example, the rate of infection may be different, and I have asked that PHE is clear and transparent in the data and reasoning behind its decisions.
As we start the new year I will stay in close contact with schools and the department. We need to ensure the policies in place in Portsmouth are optimal for our city’s families and protect school personnel from unreasonable risk.