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School libraries could be taped off like this one to limit infections spreading

Teachers’ union leaders remain unconvinced that it will be safe to reopen schools in England on 1 June – after the publication of evidence from the government’s scientific advisers.

Paul Whiteman of the NAHT head teachers’ union says there is still no proof it would be a “wise thing to do”.

Some councils also reject plans for a phased return for primary pupils.

The Department for Education has said returning to school is particularly important for disadvantaged children.

It is aiming for children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to be invited back into primary schools after half term.

But the response from teachers’ leaders suggests the stand-off over the safety of reopening schools will continue – with warnings that the evidence released by the SAGE scientific advisory group is “inconclusive”.

‘Evidence gaps’

“It will quickly become clear to anybody reading the papers that the science is not definitive,” said Geoff Barton, leader of the secondary heads teachers’ union, ASCL.

“The papers highlight the significant gaps in evidence, knowledge and understanding,” said Patrick Roach, leader of the Nasuwt teachers’ union.

Mary Bousted, co-leader of the National Education Union, said there was still only “weak evidence” on safety.

“We are surprised that the wider opening of schools proposed by Boris Johnson has not been modelled by SAGE.

“This points to a cavalier attitude towards the nation’s children,” said Dr Bousted.

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Instead, seven other scenarios were modelled, with the DfE’s preferred option being a combination of two options.

In its evidence, the scientific advisory group said the role of children in the transmission of Covid-19 was uncertain – and it “cannot be clear” the extent to which schools could be reopened without increasing the virus.

It said the risk to pupils of going back to school was “very, very small, but it is not zero”.

‘Limited impact’

While children seem less likely to be severely ill from coronavirus, there is less clear-cut evidence on how likely they are to be infected or spread the virus.

In seven scenarios for opening schools, the committee found opening nurseries and reception classes would have a smaller effect on the spread of the virus than primary schools – but opening secondary schools could have a bigger impact.

The advice says strategies such as pupils coming in on alternate weeks could be “good ways to stop extensive transmission chains in school”.

However, the advice also notes there is “limited evidence” on the impact of school closures on the rate of Covid-19 infections.

This is because the steps were taken at the same time as other lockdown measures – and it is “difficult to disentangle the individual impacts”.

Since Boris Johnson announced in early May the intention to reopen schools on 1 June, if conditions were right, teachers and heads have been asking to see the advice on which the decision was based.

Since then, they have begun calling for a far more regional approach, with local authorities being given the final call.

Phased return

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson made a plea for the sector to let children get back to school, and a string of ministers lined up to try to persuade parents, many of whom are concerned about a return, that schools would be safe.

But, as opposition continues to grow, there has been a softening of the government’s approach.

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Robert Buckland, said the government was prepared to listen to the concerns of head teachers and council leaders, and hinted it might step back from the 1 June date.

He also acknowledged schools would not reopen in a uniform way across England after half term.

On Thursday the governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland announced plans for a phased return to school for pupils, starting in August.

Wales has not yet set a date.

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