The government has said it expects schools and colleges to remain fully open until the end of term, after a number of councils advised they switch to remote learning.
Council leaders in Islington and Greenwich have told schools in their areas to close early for Christmas and move to online learning because of rising COVID-19 rates in the capital.
Mayor Sadiq Khan has called on Boris Johnson to consider closing all secondary schools and colleges in London early and allowing them to reopen later in January because of “outbreaks” among 10 to 19-year-olds.
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Meanwhile, Essex County Council has said nearly all secondary schools in Basildon have moved to full remote education.
Parts of Essex will be moving into Tier 3 restrictions from Wednesday – as will some of Hertfordshire, and the entirety of the capital.
While schools are supposed to remain open regardless of which tier they fall into, the heightened restrictions being introduced are indicative of how COVID-19 transmission has increased in those areas.
And the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that about one in 50 secondary school pupils is infected – twice the rate of adults over the age of 25.
Asked about the schools issue at a regular briefing with journalists, the prime minister’s spokesman said: “We’ve consistently said that not being in school has a detrimental impact on children’s learning as well as their own personal development and mental health.
“Which is why we expect all schools and colleges to remain open until the end of term on Thursday, as schools have remained open throughout the pandemic.”
Asked if action could be taken against councils that shut schools early, the spokesman replied: “Our regional school commissioner teams are working closely with schools and local authorities across the country and will continue to work with them and support them to remain open.”
Under coronavirus legislation passed earlier this year, the government has the power to issue “directions” to headteachers around education provision during the pandemic.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson could apply for a High Court injunction forcing schools to remain open.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he was “very reluctant” to see schools close.
He told his LBC radio phone-in: “I’m worried about closing schools early but equally I can see council leaders are put in a difficult situation now.”
Asked what he would say to London mayor Mr Khan, the Labour leader said: “Talk to the health secretary about what we can do this week to keep schools open, try to keep them open this week.”
Schools in England have been told that they can take an inset day on Friday in order to allow staff to have a “proper break” from identifying potential cases of coronavirus.
But school leaders have been demanding more flexibility to allow them to end in-person teaching earlier to reduce the risk of pupils and staff having to self-isolate over Christmas.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said other local authorities should “take the same decision” as Greenwich Council.
He said: “The government should have been planning for this weeks ago.
“They have now started to recognise the blindingly obvious fact that transmission is happening in schools and that this can spread to families. Much more is needed to control the virus in schools and to protect communities.”
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Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said it was “deeply unfair” that schools, their pupils and their families have been “caught between the heavy-handed approach of central government and increasing alarm at local infection rates”.
“Although it is now incredibly late in the day, the government must remove the threat of legal action and allow schools to make the decisions they need to make on behalf of their staff and children,” he said.
“In the future, it must allow for more nuanced responses to local infection rates and the huge disruption affecting many schools rather than insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach.”
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