Teaching unions have expressed their frustration at the introduction of last-minute guidance on the reopening of secondary schools in England, which says schools in local lockdown areas should introduce a rota system to limit attendance and compulsory face masks in communal areas.
The guidance, issued on Friday ahead of English schools reopening for the start of the new academic year next week, is intended to limit the amount of contact between staff and students in schools, and provide enough time at home for symptoms to become apparent.
Initially, the new guidance had said that if a single case of coronavirus was confirmed, every pupil in the affected person’s year group or “bubble” might have to quarantine for two weeks. However, this passage was removed by the Department for Education shortly after publication on Friday night.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said the changes to school attendance were an “absolute last resort”, and only for a “worst-case scenario”.
“We hope that we won’t have to implement the guidance set out today,” he said.
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However, the shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said the timing of the introduction of the new guidance was “unfair” to headteachers and school leaders.
“School leaders have been asking all summer for information about what they should do in the event of local restrictions in their area,” she told Sky News. “And [it’s] really unfair, I think, to heads, that [the guidelines] are sent out late on a Friday night, at the start of a bank holiday, days before the first day of the new school term.
“Heads are going to feel under a lot of pressure now, over this weekend, to start looking at these, thinking about how they will implement them in their schools, whether they will have to make any changes to arrangements they’ve already put in place.”
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, where some boroughs are still under local lockdown restrictions, said the guidance was “fairly clear, but it was very late”.
“It came out at 7.30pm on the Friday before a bank holiday,” he told BBC Breakfast. “Why is the government doing this again, putting out guidance so late so that headteachers don’t have time to prepare?”
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that school leaders felt a “weary, resigned sense of inevitability” at the timing of the new guidelines.
Asked how teachers would feel about the situation, he said: “Here we are again, right at the last minute with something that we have been accused of expressing treachery in asking for – where’s the plan B in case of local lockdown – at last it has arrived.”
Echoing this, Paul Whiteman, the leader of the NAHT union, said headteachers had been asking for a contingency plan for what would happen in the case of an outbreak for weeks.
“Keeping schools open has to be the priority, but you don’t need a crystal ball to see that there will almost inevitably be some disruption in some areas in the coming weeks,” he said, adding that “another late-night publication is fairly typical of what we’ve become used to”.
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