Many constituents have written to me about Covid transmission in schools. I have been contacted by many teachers, parents, pupils and school staff who have told me of their concerns about returning to school, particularly when the national Covid rate and hospital admission number remain so high and so worrying. Whilst there is no evidence to say that the new strain affects children anymore and they remain with overwhelmingly mild symptoms, I feel for the families, teachers, and staff who are concerned about being passed on the virus. The government did not heed the calls needed to ensure the safe re-opening of schools. Others have written to me to ask to keep schools open during this time, that the benefits of staying open outweigh the devastating costs to children by closing them.
Labour’s position has always been clear that closing the schools should only be the last resort. I am in regular contact with headteachers in Bristol West and I understand the consequences for the education and wellbeing of children and young people who have missed so much school. Every child is affected, and I am particularly concerned about those who are not able to work effectively from home. Unfortunately, the failure of the government to get ahead of the virus means that we have reached the last resort. I fear that we would not have been able to reduce the R rate and reduce the strain on hospital admissions without the closure of schools.
My biggest priority now is to do everything I can to ensure that children and young people get the laptops, WiFi, and data connection that they need – immediately. I am working with schools to find out this need. It’s disgraceful that over the last few months I have been continually asking for more laptops where they are needed in Bristol West and as we go into a national lockdown I know that there are many schools without nearly an adequate number. I recently attended a surgery with the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, and I also discussed these issues during our Labour briefing with the Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green.
Labour believes that schools must be the first to re-open after any lockdown. That means that the government must be working with schools, headteachers, support staff and their unions. I attended the National Education Union meeting last week and took part in the call with the Vaccines Minister on vaccine rollout. If we want to re-open schools as soon as possible, we must seriously consider prioritising teachers and school staff for vaccination.
Listening to previous National Education Union briefings, it is clear that the government has continually failed to make schools secure and continually failed to heed guidance from the National Education Union and other unions. The National Education Union supported Labour’s calls for an earlier circuit breaker to try and avoid the situation we find ourselves in now. Hearing from schools over the winter break, it was clear that Gavin Williamson’s plan for mass-testing in schools was ill-prepared, under-funded and impossible to safely and securely implement for the first week of term.
My priority now remains to work with schools during this lockdown to ensure that every child is able to access the education, wellbeing and support they need during this time. Please do get in touch if you have any questions, comments or concerns on this and I will continue to represent you.