The government and teaching unions must "stop squabbling" and agree a plan to get children back to school in "a safe, phased return", the children’s commissioner for England has said.
Anne Longfield also called for rigorous COVID-19 testing of teachers, children and families to ease safety fears among parents.
I am disappointed that the debate about when some primary school kids can return has descended into a squabble between government and the teaching unions, she said.
All sides need to show a greater will to work together in the interests of children.
She added: We cannot afford to wait for a vaccine, which may never arrive, before children are back in school.
Ms Longfield urged the sector to aspire for all children to return to school in some form before the summer, and to use school buildings for summer schools and family support over the holidays.
Her comments came after teachers’ unions called for more answers from the government about the safety of reopening primary schools in England from 1 June, after a meeting with chief scientific advisers on Friday.
The teachers’ union NASUWT claimed evidence it received from the government during the crunch talks was flimsy at best.
It added the meeting raised more questions than answers – and claimed Number 10 provided no information to change the widely held view that the evidence base for opening schools from 1 June is weak.
Meanwhile, mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson has said he would only allow teachers and children to return to school when it was safe to do so, and Labour leader of Gateshead Council, Martin Gannon, said the easing of the lockdown rules was frankly madness.
During an interview with Sky News, Mr Anderson criticised comments made by Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Trust, who said it was common sense for pupils to return to school, especially for children from lower-income families who see it as a place of security and safety.
He said: I think that’s an absolute disgrace and an insult to children whether they live in disadvantaged communities or households.
I will only allow schools to let children, teachers and ancillary staff back into schools if it’s safe to do so. This has got nothing to do with disadvantaged children or politics, it’s got everything to do with the safety of children.
He added his views were based on common sense rather than scientific models and he wasn’t looking for a confrontation.
The bottom line is I’ve heard scientists give different opinions, he said. These same scientists told us that there was no problem with care homes and the infection rates there.
The British Medical Association has also backed calls for the government to reconsider its plans, saying schools should not reopen in England until the case numbers are much lower.
In a letter addressed to Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), Dr Chaand Nagpaul said current evidence on reopening schools is conflicting and he praised the union for urging caution over returning more pupils to school.
Talks between the unions and scientific advisers came after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson unveiled plans to break the deadlock between the government and unions with the talks on Friday night.
The government plans to send children in reception, Years 1 and Year 6 back to school as the country eases out of lockdown.
But NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach claimed no confirmation was provided that teachers are at low risk of catching COVID-19 once schools reopen.
He said: The NASUWT remains clear that no school should reopen until it can demonstrate that it is safe to do so.
No clear information was provided on what modelling has been undertaken in relation to potential transmission rates when schools open more widely. Nothing in the meeting provided reassurance for the deeply worried and anxious school workforce.
We are continuing to press for answers to these questions and also for clear guidance from government to schools to ensure that they take appropriate and reasonable steps to assess and mitigate the health and safety risks posed by COVID-19.
Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake, who chairs the Local Government Association’s Children & Young People Board, backed the comments made by Dr Roach, telling Sky News: An announcement was made without real consultation with headteachers. [There were] no signs of the scientific evidence that they say they’ve got lead them to make the decision.
What they’re saying through the LGA is ‘show us the scientific evidence’. Explain why they’ve chosen reception, Year 1 and Year 6. What’s the rationale behind it?
She warned that, due to how the issue has been handled, parents also don’t have the confidence that all measures have been taken to make sure children can return safely.
Mr Williamson has since said that getting children back to school was vital for their educational development.
He added: Many schools are already taking steps to welcome back their pupils. I am grateful for their support.
I want to reassure parents and families that we are giving schools, nurseries and other providers all the guidance and support they will need to welcome more children back in a phased way and no earlier than 1 June.
That’s why we have engaged closely with stakeholders from across the sector throughout the past seven weeks, including the trade unions, and today we arranged a detailed briefing for them with the scientific and medical experts.`
Children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield will be speaking to Sky News at around 8am this morning.