Thousands of teachers have backed a call to close schools when England enters a national lockdown next week.
Boris Johnson confirmed at Saturday evening’s Downing Street press conference that schools, universities and colleges would remain open when the month-long nationwide lockdown begins on Thursday.
The PM said the country could not afford to allow the virus to ‘damage our children’s futures even more than it has already’.
Earlier, the National Education Union’s (NEU) Joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney insisted ONS data showed schools ‘are an engine for virus transmission’.
Demanding classrooms are shut Mr Courtney said: ‘It would be self-defeating for the Government to impose a national lockdown, whilst ignoring the role of schools as a major contributor to the spread of the virus.
‘The Government should include all schools in proposals for an immediate national lockdown.’
The ONS said on Friday that older teenagers and young adults ‘continue to have the highest positivity rates, while rates appear to be steeply increasing among secondary school children’.
Mr Courtney said that NEU’s own analysis of ONS figures shows that virus levels are now nine times higher amongst primary pupils and 50 times higher amongst secondary pupils since the start of term.
He made the statement ahead of Saturday’s delayed briefing, after news schools would stay open was leaked to the media.
However it made no impact on the Government’s decision.
Justifying his approach Mr Johnson said: ‘My priority – our priority – remains keeping people in education.
‘So childcare, early years settings, schools, colleges and universities will all remain open.
‘Our senior clinicians still advise that school is the best place for children to be.
‘We cannot let this virus damage our children’s futures even more than it has already and I urge parents to continue taking their children to school.
‘I’m extremely grateful to teachers across the country for their dedication in enabling schools to remain open.’
The National Education Union (NEU), which represents the majority of teachers and education professionals in the UK, said 60,000 teachers and support staff have backed their call to #CloseTheSchools, which began trending on Twitter shortly after the PM’s announcement.
The union wants schools to remain open only to children of key workers and vulnerable children and argues not closing them will result in a longer lockdown.
The row comes after figures showed more than half of secondary schools in England sent home at least one pupil due to coronavirus last week.
However there is conflicting data on the matter, with scientists saying the role of transmission in children is not yet fully understood.
Earlier this month, a report by the World Health Organisation said schools being open did not lead to rise in community spread where infection was low. It said preventative measures alongside schools reopening – such as contact tracing -averted larger outbreaks.
It also warned of the damaging impact being out of school has on children and said school closures should only be considered ‘as a last resort’.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said it is ‘very welcome’ that schools would remain open and added it would have been a ‘disaster’ if they were to close.
The National Association of Head Teachers’ Associations (NAHT) said that it was was ‘right to prioritise keeping pupils in schools’.
But it said pupils who need to self-isolate need more support in catching up with their studies.
Nick Brook, Deputy General Secretary of NAHT, said: ‘Children learn best when in school. At a time when we should be talking about how best to support pupils to catch-up lost learning, we are instead faced with the challenge of ensuring that they do not fall even further behind.
‘Government now need to accept that reliance upon a summer series of exams in 2021 is a wholly inadequate solution.
‘We must be confident that the continued disruption to education this year does not result in the award of grades that do not fairly reflect students true ability. Future opportunities and life-chances of 16 and 18 year olds must not be limited as a result of government dithering.’