Labour councillors concerned by plans to open up Hertfordshire schools in June

Schools have been closed for the majority of children since March 23
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Labour councillors are calling for individual schools in Hertfordshire to be given the power to decide whether – or not – to open up to increasing numbers of pupils in June.

Since March 23, schools have been closed to the vast majority of youngsters, as part of a drive to halt the spread of Covid-19.

And only for the children of essential key workers and those youngsters deemed to be vulnerable have been allowed to attend.

School stock imageSchool stock image
School stock image

But now the government has announced plans for a phased return to school for all children from June 1 – starting with those in reception, year 1 and year 6.

Last week the county council’s executive member for education, libraries and localism Cllr Terry Douris asked parents and carers to “support” the planned phased return.

He stressed that systems and procedures would be put in place to make children as safe as possible.

And he said it was time to “pay back” the effort and work of school staff over recent weeks.

But now leader of the county council’s Labour group Cllr Judi Billing has written an open letter to Cllr Douris raising concerns about the plan.

And she has asked for assurances that no pressure will be put on schools to implement the plans – and that parents will not have to send their children if they are “uncertain” or “frightened” to do so.

In the open letter, Cllr Billing points to government advice that, she says, changes “confusingly every day” – and to the rise in the ‘R’ rate (or ‘reproduction rate’) announced on Friday (May 15).

She also highlights ‘misgivings’ from the British Medical Association, as well as the ongoing discussions between education unions and the government’s ‘scientific advisory group for emergencies’ (SAGE).

And she points to the concerns that, she says, parents continue to have for the safety of their children.

She highlights the the vast range of school buildings in Hertfordshire – from ‘light airy new builds’ to ‘ancient Victorian primary schools – where distancing will be possible to varying degrees.

She accepts that some junior schools may be able to accommodate – and socially distance – their year 6 children.

But she says that social distancing will be “excessively difficult” in schools that combine infant and junior classes – and “entirely impossible” in nursery classes.

Cllr Billing says that it is local government that is best placed to make the “best local decision” about how to support the general population.

She calls on Cllr Douris to allow decisions to be made locally – allowing “schools and parents to make the best possible local decisions for their circumstances”.

And she asks that no pressure is put on schools to conform or on parents – who are “uncertain and frightened” – to send their children to school.

“Poor Government decisions over the last five months have as we all know already led to many thousands of unnecessary deaths across the population,” she says. “Please let us make better decisions locally.”

Commenting on the letter, Cllr Douris said that the health and safety of pupils and staff was”paramount”.

He said that – subject to the right conditions and scientific evidence – the government had indicated that June 1 was the “earliest” appropriate date to open up schools to a greater number of pupils.

And he said the county council had produced comprehensive guidance notes that headteachers could refer to in creating their own plans.

“All schools will need to observe social distancing and classrooms will be re-configured to accommodate this,” said Cllr Douris.

“Of course, we know that with over 500 schools in the county there is a wide range of situations and individual headteachers will need, with the support of the county council to make local adjustments.”

After eight weeks of home education, Cllr Douris also stressed the need for children to return to school.

He said: “The need to continue the education and social interaction of children is vital to their future well-being and ability to succeed in life.

“I am very aware that children have been generally confined to their own homes for eight weeks and although teachers and support staff have done a fantastic job in providing distance learning there is no substitute for seeing and interacting with your friends and classmates and the need to respond to in-school based teaching and learning.”