Education unions, backed by northern leaders, have warned that keeping schools and universities open in England is an inadequate “half-measure” which will sow the seeds for another lockdown next year and prolong the suffering from Covid.

The National Education Union (NEU), the biggest teaching union in the UK with almost half a million members, says schools are “an engine for virus transmission” and wants them to close again to all except “vulnerable” pupils and those with key-worker parents, to drive down transmission.

The government, children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, and the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, say schools should remain open to all pupils even as non-essential shops and venues are ordered to close for four weeks from Thursday, while adults should work from home if possible.

NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “We are worried this will just lead to another lockdown later. We think it will not work if schools are not included.”

The union also recommends that a rota system to reduce the number of pupils in classrooms and corridors be introduced in secondary schools. It is already working successfully in some sixth forms.
With #CloseSchoolsNOW trending on Twitter, leaders of northern cities – where Covid infections have been at their highest and school attendance at its lowest as a result – echoed NEU calls for schools in their regions to close.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, speaking at a press conference with Liverpool’s mayor, Steve Rotheram, said: “It’s my view, and it’s shared by Steve, that we do need to see a period of closure in our schools if we are to get those cases right down, and if we are to avoid a scenario where large parts of the north-west [of England] are simply put back in tier 3 coming out of this.”

Scientists warned that keeping schools open could mean infection rates stay higher for longer.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: “Personally I think this is definitely the lockdown to put in place now but if that transmission, particularly in secondary schools, continues to rise then that may have to be revisited in the next four weeks in order to get R [the rate of reproduction] below one, and the epidemic shrinking.”

The University and College Union (UCU), which represents 120,000 university staff, renewed calls for all teaching to go online, with more than 35,000 positive Covid cases now recorded on campuses in the UK.

The UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, said: “The insistence that the rest of the country should go into lockdown, but that students and staff at universities and colleges (most of whom are adults) should continue as normal, is a half-measure and will potentially sow the seeds of a further lockdown in 2021.”

Headteachers’ unions, the Association of School and College Leaders and the National Association of Head Teachers, agreed it was right to prioritise keeping pupils in classrooms but called on ministers to be transparent about the risks to children, families and school staff.

They also urged the government to fully fund Covid costs, remove fines for parents who keep their children out of school and rethink next year’s exams, which the government wants to retain, albeit with a three-week delay to allow for more teaching time.

Jules White, head of Tanbridge House secondary school in Horsham, West Sussex, and leader of the Worth Less? school funding campaign, added: “If the government continues to insist that schools should stay open, headteachers urgently require guidance and support on priority testing for staff, emergency financial support, and whether or not further information is needed to keep vulnerable children and staff safe.

“Headteachers also know that summer exams in their current form can’t go ahead and we must have meaningful guidance on this too. We recognise how much our children’s learning and emotional wellbeing depends on our schools but we can’t function effectively on a wing and a prayer.”

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