teaching union has urged the Government to delay reopening schools in areas under the toughest coronavirus restrictions, amid fears the new strain is more infectious for children.
Officials from Downing Street and the Department for Education were due to discuss the issue on Monday amid concerns over the spread of a new strain of coronavirus, but the teaching union NASWUT has demanded further action on school safety.
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, has written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson asking for schools to move to remote learning for all pupils, except those deemed to be vulnerable or the children of key workers, in the highest tier areas.
The union is also asking the Government to publish new safety guidance in light of the new Covid-19 variant, introduce mandatory face coverings within schools and give staff priority access to the vaccine.
Earlier on Monday, Mr Gove said ministers were confident primary school pupils and Year 11 and Year 13 pupils in England would be able to return in the first week of January, with the rest going back later in the month.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “We are talking to teachers and headteachers in order to make sure we can deliver effectively. But we all know that there are trade-offs.
“As a country we have decided – and I think this is the right thing to do – that we prioritise children returning to school.
“But we have a new strain and it is also the case that we have also had, albeit in a very limited way, Christmas mixing, so we do have to remain vigilant.
“We are confident that we will be able to get schools back in good order. Our plan and our timetable is there, and we are working with teachers to deliver it.”
He also told Sky News: “We always keep things under review but teachers and headteachers have been working incredibly hard over the Christmas period since schools broke up in order to prepare for a new testing regime – community testing – in order to make sure that children and all of us are safer.”
Scientists have suggested that the mutated coronavirus strain could more easily infect children.
The National Education Union has previously said the Government should allow schools to move classes online for most pupils for a fortnight in January to allow Covid-19 cases to fall.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the arguments for reopening schools in January were “very finely balanced”.
“I think the next few weeks going into January are going to be extremely difficult across the whole country,” Sir Jeremy, director of the Wellcome Trust, told Today.
“Certainly my own view is that schools opening is an absolute priority. But society – and eventually this is a political decision – will have to balance keeping schools open, if that is possible, with therefore closing down other parts of society.
“It is going be a trade-off between one or other. You cannot have everything. You cannot have the whole of society opening, and schools opening and further education and universities, and keep R below 1 with this variant.”
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “Labour has been clear that keeping pupils learning should be a national priority, but a litany of Government failures, from a lack of funding for safety measures through to the delayed and chaotic announcement of mass testing, is putting young people’s education at risk.
“It is time for the Prime Minister to get a grip on the situation and show some leadership.
“The country needs to hear from him today, alongside the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, about the evidence on the spread of the virus, how he plans to minimise disruption to education and a clear strategy for schools and colleges that commands the support of parents, pupils and staff.”
PA Media contributed to this article