Downing Street has warned of the risks to children’s education of prolonging school closures, as the government doubles down on plans for a phased reopening from 1 June.
Education unions have reacted angrily to the plan, which would see reception and years 1 and 6 return first, calling it “reckless”, and warning that schools have not been given enough time to prepare.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, wrote in the Daily Mail that teachers should be ready to “do their duty” and cooperate with the government’s plan.
Boris Johnson’s official spokesman, asked about those remarks on Friday, said: “Safety comes first, but we must also be aware of the potential damage to a child’s education from not getting them back in the classroom.”
Teaching unions are meeting the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, and England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, on Friday, to hear the scientific advice behind the decision. Williamson will attend.
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The prime minister’s spokesman said: “The purpose of the meeting is to allow the union leaders to hear directly from the experts. The education secretary has been in contact with heads and the teachers’ unions throughout the process, and we continue to want to work with them in order to get children back into school, in a way which is safe.”
He added that schools reopening was “not happening overnight, and it won’t happen without schools putting in place a range of measures to reduce transmission”.
Asked whether teachers would be issued with personal protective equipment, he said face coverings were only recommended for enclosed spaces such as public transport, and should not be necessary for teachers, unless they were giving close care to a child with symptoms.
Downing Street has been keen for schools to reopen, in part so parents, who are juggling home schooling with working from home, can be more productive.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have criticised the plans. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow education secretary, has demanded that the government establish safety conditions that must be met before schools can reopen, instead of first setting a fixed date.
“The government must urgently work collaboratively with trade unions to create clear conditions, based on the tests unions have helpfully set out, so that every school can implement them to ensure a safe return. Schools should only reopen when those safety conditions have been met,” she said.
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