Coronavirus: 'Little evidence' COVID-19 transmitted in schools, Gavin Williamson says

·4-min read
Pupils are set to return to the classroom next month

There is "little evidence" that coronavirus is transmitted in schools, the education secretary has said.

Gavin Williamson said the education and care of children is "a national priority" ahead of the planned return of pupils to schools in England in September.

He said the government is continuing to do "everything in our power" to ensure children return to school safely.

"We have always been and will continue to be guided by the best scientific and medical advice," Mr Williamson said.

"The latest research which is expected to be published later this year - one of the largest studies on the coronavirus in schools in the world - makes it clear there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school.

"There is also growing confidence among parents about their children returning. This is down to the hard work of school staff across the country who are putting in place a range of protective measures to prepare to welcome back all pupils at the start of term."

Boris Johnson is facing widespread calls to boost coronavirus testing and tracing in order to reopen schools safely without imposing further restrictions on businesses or social lives.

Speaking during a visit to a school in east London on Monday, he said the "last thing we want to do is to close schools".

The PM said he hoped schools would not be forced to close as a result of local restrictions being brought in, adding: "We think that education is the priority for the country and that is simple social justice."

The PM repeated his assertion that it is a "moral duty" to make sure kids return to school next month.

"It's not right that kids should spend more time out of school, it's much much better for their health and mental wellbeing, obviously their educational prospects, if everybody comes back to school full-time in September," he said.

Mr Johnson said he understood there was "anxiety" about grades as pupils prepare to get estimated results after exams were cancelled because of the pandemic.

He said he was "very, very keen" that GCSE and A-level exams should take place as normal in the upcoming academic year.

The PM has said that scientific advisers have warned him that "trade-offs" may be necessary to keep transmission down.

But teachers, scientists, opposition politicians and the children's commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, are among those calling for improvements to testing before pupils return.

Ms Longfield said regular testing of pupils and teachers, potentially on a weekly basis, could be required - even if they do not have any symptoms - to keep transmission rates down.

"I think it needs to be as regular as it needs to be, to ensure that the infection is caught and identified as quickly as possible and then the tracking system can move on from that," she told Times Radio.

Health and social care minister Helen Whately told Sky News the risk in schools is "very low" based on the latest research.

She added: "Combine that with the recommendations from Public Health England on making schools even safer - so teaching children in bubbles, staggering start and finish times for instance, and teachers encouraging children to frequently wash and sanitise their hands, means it is absolutely safe for children to get back to schools and it is really important that they do."

Ms Whately said the government is "determined" to see children back in the classroom.

"I know that teachers and parents have made huge efforts to continue children's efforts of education from home - but it's just not the same as children being in school," she added.

"Sadly, we have seen children from more disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to fall behind in this time - so it's essential that we have children back at schools this autumn."

Sky News political correspondent Kate McCann said that despite the lack of evidence of transmission in schools, there are some concerns for older students and teenagers and how to ensure pupils stick to social distancing rules.

National Education Union deputy general secretary Avis Gilmore called for ministers to "be clear" about support if a second wave of the virus strikes.

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"Robust track, trace and test alongside health and safety checks in schools and colleges are necessary," she said.

The Association of School and College Leaders said students may be taught on a week-on, week-off basis if there was a resurgence of COVID-19, with children being homeschooled in the alternative weeks.

Most UK schools are set to start the new term in early September, however those in Scotland will begin to reopen this week - with around 700,000 pupils returning to classrooms on Tuesday.

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