A growing number of schools in England may be forced to close children and send them home due to a lack of staff, as teachers with symptoms follow the government’s instructions to isolate themselves, the unions warned.
The government confirmed on Monday that schools should remain open for now given the outbreak of Covid-19. Headmasters fear, however, that this may not be possible if there is insufficient staff to teach and supervise students.
National Education Union (NEW) general secretary Mary Bousted said she had heard reports of a shortage of schools closing due to staff shortages, but the problem is likely to worsen as more workers are infected.
She said there was fear among teachers and parents, who were instructed by the government on the one hand, not to avoid essential contacts and mass meetings, while their schools, some with communities of thousands, should remain open.
“We understand why the government wants to keep schools open,” she said. “They are an important public service. For children who receive free school meals, they are a place where children are fed. If you have your child in school, parents can work, and we understand the problems with children of parents who work in essential services.
“But they want guidance, they want advice, they want information. Just a blanket “schools stay open for the moment” doesn’t give us any of the answers we need. “
Teachers’ leaders expressed concerns at a meeting with Education Minister Gavin Williamson on Monday, highlighting the potential impact of school closings on vulnerable students, particularly free school meals and protection issues. The NEW was not invited to the meeting.
Participants asked for Ofsted’s inspections and school performance tables to be suspended so that school principals could focus on the ongoing emergency and the health and well-being of students and teachers.
In a joint statement after the meeting, Geoff Barton, secretary general of the Association of School and University Heads, and Paul Whiteman, secretary general of the National Association of School Heads, called for more clarity to reduce fear among students and their families.
The statement says: “The most immediate challenge is the difficulty of keeping schools open as more and more employees have to isolate themselves. It is likely that some schools will have to close due to insufficient staff to teach, support, and supervise children.
“We need to act quickly to clarify and remove the obvious concerns of students, families, and staff about what can or may not happen and what the contingencies are to deal with the inevitable disruption.”
Leora Cruddas, managing director of the Confederation of School Trusts, who also attended the meeting, addressed the challenges that special schools for children with profound and diverse learning difficulties face.
A Ministry of Education spokesman said the meeting with school principals was part of the ongoing commitment, “to ensure that the outbreak of the coronavirus has the least impact on children’s education and to ensure that all action taken is based on the latest medical and scientific knowledge are based on orientation.
“The government continues to advise that all schools remain open unless Public Health England instructs otherwise.” Further talks will be held later this week to address other school issues, including emergency planning for GCSEs and high school graduates.