A growing number of councils in England are advising schools against reopening on the Government’s proposed date of June 1, while others say not all pupils in the proposed year groups can return safely.
More than a dozen councils have raised concerns about admitting more children to primary schools from as early as next month, a PA news agency survey of local authorities in England has found.
Some councils, including Sunderland and Rochdale, have suggested they may not follow the Government’s time frame while other local authorities have already ruled out reopening on June 1.
Richard Watts, leader of Islington Council in north London, said on Wednesday that the council did not support rushing to hit an “arbitrary deadline” set by ministers, adding that he recognised the “grave concerns” from parents.
Meanwhile, other local authorities have said a phased approach will be needed next month to minimise safety risks. Sandwell Council in the West Midlands has said not all children in nursery, reception, year one and year six will be able to start “on a full-time basis” from June 1 due to the size of classrooms.
The findings come as the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils in England, called for access to coronavirus testing data in order to safely reopen schools in different areas.
But a significant number of local authorities, including North Somerset Council and Havering Council in London, have said they will leave the decision on reopening to individual head teachers.
Others said they are waiting to see what the Government decides next week before commenting.
The majority of local authorities speaking out against the proposals are Labour-controlled, but Conservative-run councils Solihull and Essex have also said some schools may have to open later in June.
Children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 are expected to go back to school from June 1 at the earliest, with the ambition of other year groups in primary school returning before the summer break.
On Wednesday, Boris Johnson promised to have a testing and tracing system up and running by the start of next month, but the rollout of the contact tracing app will come later.
His comments came after Cabinet minister Robert Buckland conceded there may not be a “uniform approach” to reopening England’s schools from June 1 in the face of opposition from councils.
Asked earlier if schools reopening depends on test, track and trace being fully in place, Mr Buckland told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think the position is somewhat more nuanced than that.”
He said: “I don’t think any of us want to put either children or our dedicated teaching staff in any danger at all, and the question of being safe is clearly paramount.
“So we’re all working towards June 1 and planning for that return, but I accept the point that there may well be issues from employers that need to be addressed which might not mean we’ll see a uniform approach on June 1.”
Judith Blake, chairwoman of the LGA’s children and young people board, said: “Councils are keen to support their local schools to get children back as soon as possible. However, the safety of children, their families and staff will always be the top priority.
“As there are different Covid-19 infection rates around the country, schools and councils must be able to work together to decide how and when schools open to more children. Some areas may want to work faster than others.”
She added: “Councils also need crucial testing data to be shared with them, to help enable greater confidence for teachers and parents around school openings, and powers to manage outbreaks in places like schools, care homes, businesses and communities if new Covid-19 clusters emerge.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “The R rate is worryingly high in many parts of the country, and a local authority is far better placed than the Government to decide on this issue.
“They will know the wider context for the communities they serve, and we will support them in engaging with all schools on delaying wider opening until it is safe to do so.
“Many councils rightly agree with the NEU that the Government must publish its scientific advice, must ensure that contact tracing is working and that the case rate is falling if schools are to open more widely on a safe basis.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We want children back in schools as soon as possible because being with their teachers and friends is so important for their education and their wellbeing.
“Plans for a cautious, phased return of some year groups from June 1, at the earliest, are based on the best scientific and medical advice. The welfare of children and staff has been at the heart of all decision making.”