The chair of the education select committee is calling on ministers to create a “routemap” to reopening schools, amid speculation that they may not reopen fully until after Easter.
The Times reported yesterday that education secretary Gavin Williamson is expected this week to rule out reopening schools to all pupils until after February half term.
And according to the Guardian, the government is refusing to commit even to schools being open after the Easter holidays.
Schools Week revealed last week how leaders were demanding that the government hand them back freedoms to make decisions on reopening schools, and that staggered returns and rota systems were under consideration as ways of getting schools to reopen more safely.
Robert Halfon, the chair of the education committee, said he had asked for an urgent question in the House of Commons and “an education routemap out of coronavirus to get children learning again at school”.
“The whole engine of the state must do everything possible to get our schools open after half term as was originally proposed,” he told the Guardian.
“If it means priority vaccinations for teachers and support staff then it is worth it, because despite the efforts of individual teachers and support staff, who are doing their best, we are facing an epidemic of mental health problems and educational poverty.”
It comes after scientists raised serious concerns about the impact on children’s wellbeing of the pandemic and associated partial school closures.
Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and professor of adolescent health at the UCL Institute of Child Health, told the education committee last Tuesday that he was aware of 75 international studies of “reasonable quality”, which told a “consistent” story of “considerable mental health harms”.
“When we closed schools, we closed their lives, not to benefit them, but to benefit the rest of society,” he told MPs.
But Dr Jenny Harries, the government’s deputy chief medical officer, has poured cold water on the idea of vaccinating school staff as a lever to reopening schools.
She said vaccinating staff was “not the limiting factor to opening schools, it is community transmission rates”.
“They weren’t shut because there was a specific risk in that setting,” she added.
The prime minister Boris Johnson has said that the reopening of schools depends on new variants and whether they are vaccine-resistant.
And health secretary Matt Hancock has said that reopenings will depend on a fall in the death rate from Covid, reductions in pressure on the NHS and the rollout of the vaccination programme.
Hancock told Sky News yesterday that he hoped schools would be able to reopen by Easter, but that despite “early evidence” that the lockdown was starting to bring cases down, the country was a “long long long way” from them being low enough to lift restrictions.