All schools in England should shut for two weeks after the Christmas break due to a surge in coronavirus, the UK’s biggest teaching union has said.
The NEU’s call came after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said that all London primaries would remain shut on Monday, rather than only those in some boroughs.
He said the closures were a last resort in the face of a fast-moving situation.
Labour said the move had caused stress for pupils, teachers and parents.
The daily number of new Covid cases in the UK has topped 50,000 for the past four days, as the country struggles to control a new variant of the virus.
High coronavirus infection levels in the capital have put rising pressure on hospitals.
The president of the Royal College of Physicians, Prof Andrew Goddard, told the BBC the variant was now spreading across the country, adding: “All hospitals that haven’t had the big pressures that they’ve had in the South East, London and south Wales should expect that it’s going to come their way.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint head of the National Education Union which has more than 450,000 members, called for all primary and secondary schools to be closed, saying “what is right for London is right for the rest of the country”.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We know the virus is up to 70% more infectious and the thing we do uniquely with children is we put them all together in secondary schools, where we know children really can transmit, in year group bubbles of up to 240 pupils with no social distancing.
“So it is not difficult to see why secondary school pupils are the highest age group for Covid infection and primary schools are the second highest.”
Dr Bousted told BBC Breakfast she hoped a closure of all schools would give time for a mass-testing system to be set up, but called for this to be led by public health bodies.
“In secondary schools for 1,000 pupils you will need about 21 volunteers to do this testing because teachers can’t do it and the support staff can’t do it because they will be teaching and supporting children’s learning.”
Dave Lee-Allan, headteacher of Stowmarket High School in Suffolk, described the situation as “utterly chaotic” and said he would not reopen the school if he did not feel it was fully prepared.
“It’s got to be safe,” he said. “Previously the government have been saying it would take legal action but I think in these sorts of circumstances, it should be left to the headteachers on the ground to make the right call.”
‘Chaos for parents’
Mr Williamson said in mid-December that all primary school pupils in England would return as normal in January, while the return of secondary schools and colleges would be staggered to give them time to set up mass testing programmes.
But on Wednesday, Mr Williamson delayed the start of term for all secondary schools, as well as some primary schools in Covid hotspots in south-east England, including parts of London.
Two days later, after pressure from local authorities, he expanded the primary school closures to the whole of London.
It means more than a million primary school pupils will now learn from home for at least the first two weeks of term.
Vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers will continue to attend school, the government said, adding that early years care, alternative provision and special schools will remain open.
Tom Prestwich, headteacher of Jubilee Primary School and Children’s Centre in Tulse Hill, south London, said he had found out his school would stay closed on social media on Friday.
“Schools do need to plan and we will be opening for quite a few pupils next week,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“We will need two rotas of staff – one to deliver to vulnerable pupils, pupils without decent internet access, pupils with SEN needs and another to deliver high-quality online learning. All of that takes time and this decision could have been made two weeks ago.”
Labour and unions representing teachers have also criticised the timing of the announcement.
“This is yet another government U-turn creating chaos for parents just two days before the start of term,” said Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green.
The NASUWT union, which represents 300,000 teachers and headteachers, said the government had disregarded scientific advice suggesting nationwide school closures could be “essential in breaking the chain of coronavirus transmission”.
General secretary Dr Patrick Roach said primary schools and parents in other areas subject to tier four coronavirus restrictions would wonder why the government regarded the risks to their health “less significant” than those in London and the South East.