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Unions have urged the government to phase the return of students to schools and colleges, amid concerns ministers will opt for a “big bang” approach to reopenings.

Organisations representing leaders, teachers, support staff, governors and colleges have warned they are “increasingly concerned” the government will opt to bring all learners back on March 8, which would bring almost a fifth of the population together at a time when infection rates are still high.

Prime minister Boris Johnson is due to set out a “roadmap” out of the current lockdown on Monday, with firmer plans for the return of students expected to be outlined.

It has been reported that a phased approach for secondary pupils could be taken, but it is also understood Johnson favours getting all students of all ages back on March 8.

But in a joint statement, leadership unions ASCL and the NAHT, teaching unions the NEU and NASUWT, support staff unions GMB, Unison and Unite and professional bodies the National Governance Association and Sixth Form Colleges Association, have urged the government to avoid such an approach.

They warned it would be “counterproductive if there is a danger of causing another surge in the virus, and the potential for a further period of lockdown”.

“We therefore urge the prime minister to commit to March 8 only if the scientific evidence is absolutely clear that this is safe, and at that point go no further than a phased return of children and young people with sufficient time to assess the impact before moving to the next phase.”

The groups said they were “increasingly concerned that the government is minded to order a full return of all pupils on Monday 8 March in England”. Johnson has come under mounting pressure from his backbenchers to expedite the return to schools and colleges.

This would “seem a reckless course of action”, the groups said, warning it “could trigger another spike in Covid infections, prolong the disruption of education, and risk throwing away the hard-won progress made in suppressing the virus over the course of the latest lockdown”.

 

None of this is intended to stand in the way of the full college reopening

The government has said it will make its decisions about school and college reopenings based on scientific advice.

But the unions and professional associations warned today that the role schools and colleges play in transmission was still “uncertain”.

“Scientists have expressed different views on this point. What we do know is that the full reopening of schools will bring nearly 10 million pupils and staff into circulation in England – close to one fifth of the population. This is not a small easing of lockdown restrictions. It is a massive step.”

They said the current situation necessitated a “cautious approach”, with wider school and college opening “phased over a period of time” to allow public health experts to “assess the impact of the first phase before moving to the next”.

“None of this is intended to stand in the way of the full reopening of schools and colleges. On the contrary. It is intended as a prudent way forward to ensure that once they are fully open, they stay open.”