Gavin Williamson at a presser. Gavin Williamson at a presser. Photo: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

By refusing to seriously address infection rates in schools. the Tories have guaranteed a difficult and dangerous Christmas for many, argues Terina Hine

As millions enter Tier 3 restrictions tomorrow, the government announced that there were no plans to allow schools to close early for Christmas. Instead, those which do risk prosecution.

There are also no plans to review the Covid Christmas rules. If schools continue to the end of the term there will be less than a week before the Christmas five-day mingling begins. Not enough time for families to isolate so they can safely mix.

Having announced the early closure of its schools at the beginning of the week, Greenwich Council today backed down. Rather than spend its precious resources on a legal challenge – one which legal advisers believe the council could have won – the council caved in and agreed to keep its schools open, regardless of the danger to public health.

Schools and school leaders have been heroically struggling throughout the pandemic against a government which seems desperate to go into battle with them at every turn. If the government really cared about educating our children and young people, they would have invested in making schools as Covid secure as possible as well as in distance learning. Victorian educational principles are alive and well in the government: instead of offering a carrot, they beat schools with a stick.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In California, for example, the state has ensured access to devices and the internet for all its school students. $5.3 billion was made available to the Californian education service to help fund schools’ Covid response. Whether schools open for in-person teaching is decided on a county basis, dependent upon local infection rates, with collaboration between local public health and school officials paramount, so that “decisions are tailored to the circumstances and needs of the local community”.

Here in the UK, there has been little in the way of financial support for online teaching or for making schools Covid secure. And all directives come from on-high – as we have seen with Greenwich local decision making is a punishable offence.

In the UK thousands of students are still unable to access remote learning, classrooms and corridors are crowded with neither additional teaching staff nor space forthcoming to help with social distancing. Educational provision has been as mismanaged by this ramshackle government as the rest of the crisis.

Teachers, support staff and pupils have repeatedly missed class either because of sickness or because they are self-isolating. Rather than threatening legal action over a few days missed school Mr Williamson should invest a little time and money to ensure that all pupils have access to education – remotely if necessary. 

With Covid rates doubling in some areas every 7 days, for schools to continue with in-person teaching will be a death sentence for many. All the data points to schools being the main source of infection. Matt Hancock has warned that the new variant of Covid identified in the south-east is spreading faster than previous variants, so surely an even more cautious approach is needed. The move to Tier 3 will do little to stem the tide of infection unless school pupils stay home too.

To make things worse, within 8 days of moving London and other areas of the south-east into Tier 3 restrictions the national Covid Christmas holiday begins, when there is likely to be an exodus from London – the region with the highest rate of Covid in the UK – and five days of intergenerational indoor mixing.

Thousands of parents and some schools have taken matters into their own hands, but threats of legal action will understandably prevent many more from doing what they know is in the best interest of their pupils’ and their family’s health.

Closing for a few extra days would have little or no impact on education at this point but it could save lives. Gavin Williamson and his boss the PM declared in September that schools would stay open until the end of term and that’s what they are sticking to – whatever it costs.

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