'Real risk of infection rates rising' - council chiefs' letter to the Prime Minister on reopening schools IN FULL
“As Leader and Lead Member for Children’s Services for South Tyneside Council we write to express our grave concerns that our schools have been asked to prepare to begin to open for more children from 1 June.
“Whilst we note your previous advice has been that the Government will be driven by the science, data and public health information, with the next Government update due on 28 May, we cannot see how your Government can allow the ongoing work by Schools and their Governing Bodies to continue when you must accept that the evidence remains that your Government’s own five tests are not met.
“Despite widespread and significant distress and unease expressed nationally over recent days it seems that your Government is continuing with its plans to start the wider expansion of school opening from 1 June, a little over one week away.
“Public Health figures indicate that the rate of infection ‘R’ is significantly higher in the North East than in other parts of the country. Whilst receiving your Downing Street briefings in London, which has a R rate of 0.4 — the lowest in the country, you may well assume that things are improving. However, we must stress that this is not the case for the North East.
“Currently South Tyneside has the third highest number of infections per 100,000 people nationally, just behind our neighbouring authorities of Sunderland and Gateshead. By highlighting our PHE figures to you, we ask that you recognise and reflect this when considering the science and deciding to embark on the second stage of your adjustments.
“There must be recognition of the disparity between regions and different parts of the country. We have been consistently told that the North East is two weeks behind our counterparts in London. How is it therefore possible that Government’s COVID-19 Recovery Strategy takes no account of this, whilst at the same time your Cabinet Office Minister is able to confirm your complete confidence “that children and teachers will be safe.”
“Schools in South Tyneside have remained open since lockdown began. Our ‘Family of Schools’ workforce, including Governors, teaching staff, cooks and many others are working incredibly hard, supporting and providing for the children of key workers and vulnerable children who are still attending schools, in rapidly growing numbers. Our view is that adding to these numbers now with Reception, Year 1 and Year 6, creates a real risk of infection rates rising considerably.
“We are aware that the responsibility for the risk assessment on the wider opening of schools – and the ultimate decision to expand opening – is the responsibility of Governing Bodies and Head Teachers or Principals and Academies Trusts, as appropriate. However, as part of our ongoing support, we are providing guidance, information and resources to support our Schools at this challenging time. We do not believe that the guidance provided thus far by the Department of Education has been robust, clear or comprehensive. The acknowledgement in your Government guidance, that measures such as social distancing will be difficult to implement with very young children, does little to instill confidence that the health and safety risks to our children, our staff and the wider South Tyneside community are being considered appropriately.
“Whilst the decision for expanding numbers rests with schools, it is our Local Authority duty - a legal responsibility upon us for the education and the welfare of all children, as well as the employer responsibility for the health and safety of employees in our community schools, to demand the evidence that satisfies the Government’s own tests are met before widening access to schools further.
“As a Council in the North East of England, we understand the critical importance of education to all our children’s prospects, to the health and wellbeing of our children, and know this is of particular importance for our disadvantaged and vulnerable children, who will suffer most from being out of education for long periods of time.
“Have no doubt, we want our children in school, but only when it is absolutely safe to do so.
“I look forward to your urgent reply.”
Cllr Iain Malcolm,
Leader, South Tyneside Council
Cllr Moira Smith,
Lead Member, Children’s Services, South Tyneside Council