The government maintains its priority is “to deliver face-to-face, high-quality education to all pupils” as “being out of education causes significant harm to educational attainment, life chances, mental and physical health”.
As case numbers reach new heights, 122,186 cases recorded on Friday, the government is under pressure on two fronts to keep schools open and people safe.
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Some Conservative MPs are sounding the alarm bell of coming school closures while Harlow MP Robert Halfon called for a “network of supply teachers” to be rallied, ready to plug gaps left by teachers isolating.
The chair of the Education Select Committee said: “The four horsemen of the education apocalypse have been galloping towards our young people in the form of a widening attainment gap, an epidemic of mental health problems, a rise in safeguarding hazards and a loss of life chances.”
The National Education Union (NEU) is calling for additional measures to protect vulnerable staff and students from Covid-19 and to “minimise education disruption for students”.
The teaching union’s latest safety demands include mask wearing in communal spaces, the provision of higher-grade medical masks for at-risk staff and students, improved ventilation and the reintroduction of one-way routes and staggered break times to reduce mixing.
Education minister Alex Burghart told parliament: “We absolutely want, and expect, education settings to be open.
“We want and expect children to be taught in person. And we want and expect school life to go ahead.”
The minister and MP for Brentwood and Ongar said that testing, vaccination, ventilation and hygiene are ways to ensure that in-person teaching continues in the new year.
He said: “We are recommending that at the start of next term all secondary school pupils will be tested right at the start of term, and we are offering a small amount of flexibility for the time at which schools can go back in order to make sure that this testing can take place.
“We are offering additional funding to make sure that this testing is available.
“I can reassure the House that schools have and will have all of the testing facilities that they require.”
But there is some concern that the government’s measures don’t go far enough with Labour accusing it of “complacency”.
Shadow schools minister Stephen Morgan said ministers were “falling short” on the issues of vaccination and ventilation in schools.
He claimed that “time and time again this Government’s failure to plan ahead has left children bearing the brunt of the pandemic” and said “ministers must stop treating them as an afterthought and act now to avoid chaos next term”.
Meanwhile, the NEU suggested further measures to stop the spread of Covid-19, including saying that children from households with a positive case should not attend school or college.
Current government guidance is for close contacts of people with covid to continue attending their setting as normal unless they get a positive test result.
Guidance states: “From 14 December 2021, adults who are fully vaccinated and all children and young people aged between five and 18 years and 6 months identified as a contact of someone with Covid-19 are strongly advised to take a LFD test every day for seven days and continue to attend their setting as normal, unless they have a positive test result.”
Liverpool city council echoed the desire for schools to “return as normal” and encouraged people to get covid vaccines and regular tests.
Covid cases in the city surged 60% in the seven days up to Sunday, December 19.
Cllr Tom Logan, cabinet member for education and skills, told the ECHO: “All of us, children, parents and teachers, will be hoping that schools return as normal at the beginning of January, and currently it’s expected that they will.
“Our Public Health team has been incredibly successful in working with schools and will continue reviewing numbers of cases and working with them on the actions to take if there is an increase, following a school’s outbreak plan, which all schools in the city have.
“Before pupils return, schools will review their risk assessments and any measures that need to be taken in line with government and public health guidance.
“Parents, child and school staff can also all do their bit to make sure there’s a safe return to school.
“Keep testing, twice a week, and particularly if you’re going to be meeting larger groups of people.
“And please test three days before you go back. Secondary schools will also be offering onsite testing.
“We’re also encouraging young people to have their covid vaccination.
“Those 16 and over can have first and second doses, and those 12-15 can have a first dose.”