Children have begun to return to primary schools around the country – but not in Brighton and Hove where the council and union leaders have said that it is not yet safe.
Schools chief, Councillor John Allcock, told the BBC: “This is not a party political issue for us. It’s about the safety of our children.”
The Labour councillor said that it was also about the health and safety of parents, carers and the wider community.
And four unions issued a joint statement saying: “The government has confirmed it will proceed with opening primary schools to children in nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6 on Monday 1 June even though its own scientists have not modelled the proposal and average numbers of new daily cases are still high – and despite the ‘track and trace’ system not being properly in place.
“Heads, teachers and support staff represented by the National Education Union (NEU), National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), GMB and Unison in Brighton and Hove want schools to open more widely.
“We know how important schools are for children, and particularly for vulnerable children. But it is not safe to open schools more widely on Monday 1 June.
“Brighton and Hove City Council has stated that schools should only reopen to more students when risk assessments indicate it is safe to do so and the unions fully support this position.
“We expect schools in Brighton and Hove to continue the service for children of key workers and those who are vulnerable while managing distance learning for other children but to delay wider opening to prevent the spread of covid-19 and protect the community.”
Conservative councillor Vanessa Brown raised concerns about the potential harm caused by the council’s decision to second-guess the government’s scientific advice.
In an email to Councillor Allcock, who chair’s the Labour-led council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee, she said: “We appreciate it is ultimately the individual schools that make the final decision about reopening but what set of circumstances would the administration sign off as being safe to reopen?
“What scientific data has been considered in making the announcement to not necessarily follow government advice?
“What assessment has been made of the impact on local parents of keeping the schools closed?
“What assessment has been made of the mental health implications of keeping children at home for long periods?
“Is there enough childcare in the city to meet demand if parents follow government advice to return to work but the children do not return to school?
“We are concerned that grandparents may have to fill the gap and they are often in the high-risk category and should be protected.
“What assessment has been made of the damage to children’s education, particularly our vulnerable children?
“How does the administration propose to address the issue of inequality? For years as a council we have worked to close the disadvantage gap but all the time these children are off school the gap is going to be magnified.”
The unions cited one of the government’s senior scientific advisers, Professor Dame Angela Maclean, who is also a professor of mathematical biology at Oxford.
At a Downing Street briefing she said that loosening the lockdown was reliant on a strong system of test, track and trace being up and running, social distancing and the case count reducing to manageable proportions.
The four unions said: “Unions have made clear that we would work together with the government for a phased wider opening from (Monday) 15 June – dependent on widespread community testing and tracing and ministerial engagement with unions on questions of social distancing and protection of vulnerable staff.
“We would like to work with local authorities and academy trusts on a similar timescale so that risk assessments are consulted on and agreed with unions before schools open more widely.
“As trade unions, is it also important for us to say that the government has not given us modelling of the risks to various categories of staff, including BAME (black and minority ethnic) staff, for example.
“We want to work with local authorities and MATs (multi-academy trusts) on the issues around vulnerable staff in particular.
“But it is important to understand that staff cannot be compelled to work in unsafe settings, whether that safety is about them individually or for other people, and that there are strong legal protections for staff who do refuse to work in such settings.”
Brighton and Hove NEU secretary Paul Shellard said: “Heads, teachers, support staff and school staff have all been working through this challenging time.
“Schools have been open and contact has been maintained with families and the children they teach.
“They have done so to support vulnerable children and children of key workers while their parents and carers keep the country going. This has been done bravely and willingly.
“School staff have many questions which should be answered. Why, when the rest of the country is still required to observe social distancing, is it safe for schools not to?
“Fifteen pupils to a class makes social distancing an impossibility in our small classrooms and in particular with very young children who will not understand the concept.”
GMB branch secretary Mark Turner said: “It would be irresponsible at this stage for schools , governing bodies and the local authority to even consider opening schools more widely on (Monday) 1 June.
“This should not happen until all measures have been put in place not only to protect children attending but equally importantly our members, the support staff often working closest with children before going back home in most cases to their own families and, in some cases, vulnerable family members.”
Brighton and Hove NAHT secretary Hildi Mitchell said: “School leaders want children to be back in school but we want this to be in the safest possible way for our pupils, our staff, and their families.
“We need assurance that an effective test, track and trace system is in place locally so that our school communities can begin to return without fear that they will unnecessarily be exposing their loved ones to this virus.
“Until then, we will continue supporting the children of critical workers and our vulnerable children and providing support for distance learning for those pupils at home.”
Unison schools convenor Matt Webb said: “We need to get this right and we need to get this right the first time round.
“A poorly managed and rushed reopening of schools has the potential to spread covid-19 widely across the city very quickly. This is why unions came up with a sensible plan which we still stand by.
“We are being asked to take the word of Boris Johnson over that of the medical and scientific community and that simply isn’t going to happen.
“Nobody wants to see an increase in infection across our city and nobody wants a second lockdown this summer.”