Labour demands clarity on January school return

Labour has called for clarity over the January return for schools and colleges amid the spread of the mutated version of coronavirus, which scientists have suggested could infect children more easily.

Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, and Wes Streeting, the shadow schools minister, have written to Gavin Williamson urging him to provide answers for parents, pupils and staff about reopening schools after Christmas.

They said questions on the return of pupils – and evidence about the spread of Covid-19 among young people – must be answered now, “not a matter of hours or days” before students are expected to go back.

Earlier this week Boris Johnson failed to guarantee schools would reopen as planned in January, saying he wanted to stick to the plan of a staggered return for secondary schools “if we possibly can”. 

In their letter, Ms Green and Mr Streeting mention a Daily Telegraph report which suggests ministers were considering shutting schools for the whole of January, amid fears a mutated version of coronavirus could infect children more easily.

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“An issue of this magnitude cannot be left to speculation and off-the-record briefings,” the shadow ministers wrote. “We expect to hear clearly from you and the prime minister about the situation for schools and colleges and what you intend to do about it.”

The MPs asked the government to publish scientific evidence on the spread of coronavirus in schools and colleges, and the risk it poses to staff and students.

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They also called for plans to be put in place to safeguard vulnerable children, in the event teaching goes online.

The government announced plans last week for a staggered return in January for secondary schools and colleges to help headteachers roll out mass testing of students, with exam years, vulnerable children and key workers’ children to go back as normal on 4 January, while others have remote learning. All students are expected back by 11 January.

Labour’s Ms Green said: “Gavin Williamson’s late announcement on testing has created huge stress and confusion, and now the prime minister has said these plans published just five days ago may not happen.

She added: “The government must provide pupils, parents, and schools with clear information about what will happen in January and what support they will receive.”

A government spokesperson said: “We want all pupils to return in January as school is the best place for their development and mental health, but as the prime minister has said, it is right that we follow the path of the pandemic and keep our approach under constant review.

“Our huge expansion of rapid testing will support secondary schools and colleges to stay open to all pupils and reduce the risk of transmission within local communities.”

Lateral flow devices are also set to be rolled out to secondary schools and colleges in January, with a round of testing for the return, and then weekly coronavirus testing for teachers and daily coronavirus tests for students and staff identified as a close contact of a Covid case to keep them in school.  

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However, a university professor has raised concerns over the planned use of lateral flow devices to test pupils in schools after “poor performance” during mass testing at the University of Birmingham, saying research suggested about 60 coronavirus cases had been missed.

Experts have previously suggested that relying on rapid tests which give a result in minutes could mean a high proportion of cases are missed with false negative results.

These rapid coronavirus tests were failing to identify up to 50 per cent of positive infections, according to the government’s own analysis published in early December. 

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The country’s leading scientists rigorously evaluated the lateral flow test and confirmed the accuracy of the tests using a sample of over 8,500. Latest figures for similar settings showing sensitivity of 57.5 per cent generally and 84.3 per cent in people with high viral loads.”

They added: “This means they are accurate, reliable and successfully identify those with Covid-19 who don’t show symptoms and could pass on the virus without realising.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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