The prime minister’s decision for a ‘big bang’ full reopening on 8 March makes no sense, writes Mary Bousted

Throughout this awful pandemic, the National Education Union has followed the science and been proved right time after time.  We tracked the spread of Covid in schools and colleges and the disruption it was causing to pupils’ education from September to December, when far too many were isolating at home rather than learning in school. Not only were the most disadvantaged pupils disproportionately affected, but ignoring it eventually forced the cancellation of exams.

Now the prime minister says again that opening schools is his priority. He wants our journey out of lockdown to be irreversible. On both counts, we agree. Once back, it is crucial that pupils remain in school and continue to benefit from learning in classrooms. Unfortunately, Boris Johnson’s “big bang” school return jeopardises that.

The plan ignores the collective view of all the education unions, of his scientific advisory body, SAGE and reportedly that of his own chief medical officer too. In opting to take a different path to wider opening than all the other nations of the UK, the prime minister must take responsibility for the outcome.

If transmission rates rise again in schools, peaking as they did last December with secondary pupils the most infected age group and primary pupils the second most infected, the responsibility will be his. As we remember all too well, this approach resulted in schools becoming “vectors of transmission” – his words – and greatly facilitated the spread of the virus to families and into the community.

A safe and sustainable school return is essential for our children

The NEU has been clear throughout that a safe and sustainable school return is essential for our children. We are working to support that, and key to our proposals is a phased school return – exactly what SAGE recommended in its recent advice to government. It would allow the effects to be assessed and actions to be taken early if reopening caused too great a rise in the R rate.

Why Boris Johnson has not taken this option is beyond me. Surely the prime minister, who professes that he wants to be “cautious”, is concerned that schools should not again become vectors of transmission? Children and young people are highly unlikely to become very ill with Covid. Indeed, most are likely to be asymptomatic. But adults in their contact group – school staff, family and members of the local community – are not free of risk.

A “big bang” approach to wider opening increases the chances of rising infection rates and compromises the one government success story of this pandemic: the successful rollout of the vaccine. This possibility is only heightened by the new variants of Covid that are up to 50 per cent more infectious. It also increases the chances of new and even more concerning mutations.

For all the politicians’ talk of Nightingale classrooms and ventilation units, the fact remains that none of these will be in place by March 8. That alone should give pause for political thought.

The NEU is determined that schools and colleges will have the safest, most sustainable opening. We will campaign locally for a phased return and for additional safeguards for education professionals, particularly those most at risk.  We will work to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected until they are vaccinated and their vaccinations have taken effect. We will continue to campaign for priority vaccination for all school and college staff.

The NEU will engage with local public health officials and with local authorities to examine local trends in data and look to act with them if Covid rates of infection are increasing. We will support schools and colleges who move to rotas as a way of retaining in-school teaching and learning whilst suppressing viral transmission on-site by creating the space for social distancing.

As we have done throughout the pandemic, the NEU will speak truth to power. And as it has been throughout, that truth will be led by the science. What a pity the government has not followed our example.