Greenwich back down in battle with government over closure of schools for last three days of term

Greenwich schools leaders have backed down in their confrontation with the government after being threatened with legal action if they do not let schools stay open.

The government had launched legal action against the council over plans to close schools, using emergency coronavirus legislation for the first time to ensure face-to-face teaching continues until the end of term.

The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, issued a “temporary continuity direction”, demanding the immediate withdrawal of a letter issued to headteachers on Sunday advising them to switch to remote learning amid rising Covid infection rates in the capital.

Greenwich had advised schools to close, except to the children of key workers and those classed as vulnerable, and switch to online lessons to help slow the spread of the virus. 

But today council leader Cllr Danny Thorpe has said: “With COVID-19 cases rising rapidly in the borough, I cannot agree that this is the correct choice for our schools. However, I also cannot justify the use of public funds to fight the decision in the courts. Consequently, I have no choice but to ask our schools to keep their doors open to all students rather than just continuing with online learning.

The action we took on Sunday was based solely on doing the right thing for our borough, not a protracted legal argument with the Government, which absolutely nobody needs at the end of an extremely difficult term.”

He added in a letter to the government: “As you are no doubt aware, rates in London have been rising on a most alarming trajectory, as confirmed by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in his speech to Parliament yesterday.

“This has led to London being placed in Tier 3 prior to the review scheduled on 16 December 2020 because of the concerns expressed. You are also aware that a strain of the virus is new and may well be leading to this exponential growth rate. The London data on 13 December 2020 showed that 29 of London’s 33 authorities had recorded an increase in their infection rate from the same time the previous week.

“The overall net increase in cases from the previous week was +35%. Greenwich’s infection rate had risen by 49% according to the data that day compared to the same time the previous week. Our case rate amongst older residents, those aged 60 and above, had also risen by 26% from the previous week.

“We know that much of the transmission of the virus is occurring within households. The figures for the week ending 11 December for children and staff self-isolating were significantly higher than we have recorded on previous weeks (an approximate 40%-50% increase).

“The reported positive cases were also higher than previous weeks at 90 new cases in comparison to the three previous weeks of 60 – 65 cases per week.

“Within Greenwich our most recent data indicates the following: 

“817 Greenwich resident children of school age have tested positive for coronavirus, and the rate of new cases has been increasing in recent days and weeks; 

“131 of these are primary school aged children; 

“686 are secondary school aged children;  In many cases, other members of the child’s household have also tested positive, meaning that we have significant household clusters across the borough.

“The figures for the week ending 11 December for children and staff self-isolating were significantly higher than we have recorded on previous weeks (an approximate 40%-50% increase). 

“Total number of children currently self-isolating: 3670; 

“Total number of staff currently self-isolating: 314; 

“New pupils self-isolating this week: 2120; 

“New staff self-isolating this week: 200;

“In total since the beginning of term in September we have had: 

521 positive reported cases from RBG schools; 

12,539 children have had to self-isolate;  1,231 staff have had to self-isolate.

“To update from the above data, yesterday we had a further 566 staff and pupils and 43 members of staff having to self-isolate. The 7-day case rate for Greenwich yesterday was 59% higher than at the same point last week and 53% higher for older residents (60+).

“London’s 7 day case rate rose to 40% higher than the same time the previous week. We have been assiduous in providing advice to our schools on being as safe as possible. But the rates of infection are rising and now pose a real and significant threat to our community.

“Our figures at the weekend were extremely worrying and our view was that the public health risk to students and residents of Greenwich outweighed the educational damage of switching to remote working for a very short period of time. We sought to act at all times in the best interests of our children and would never seek to prevent them from receiving education.”

Williamson had said on Monday: “It is simply not in children’s best interests for schools in Greenwich, Islington or elsewhere to close their doors. I have always been clear that using legal powers is a last resort but continuity of education is a national priority.

“That’s why I won’t hesitate to do what is right for young people and have issued a direction to Greenwich council setting out that they must withdraw the letter issued to headteachers on Sunday.”

The schools minister, Nick Gibb, has written to every school in the borough reminding them of their duty to remain open and instructing them to tell parents that children should attend unless asked to self-isolate.

The biggest spreader of the virus in the capital is education settings, particularly among pupils aged 10-19, data has showed.

Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “This is a desperate move from government ministers who have lost the plot. Rather than resorting to legal action, ministers should be supporting heads to make professional judgements on the safety, or otherwise, of their school remaining open.”

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: “If the government isn’t careful these children will pass on the virus to really vulnerable people because the rules are relaxed over Christmas.” 

He also wants mass testing at all London schools – it is currently happening just in the seven boroughs with the highest infection rates.

His letter said: “Levels of testing in London remain the lowest in England and it is vital that asymptomatic testing is extended to all Londoners who are unable to work from home, and to all pupils at secondary schools and colleges, so positive cases are able to self-isolate and prevent ongoing transmission to people in their communities.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is a national priority to keep education settings open full time and it is vital that children remain in school until the end of the term.”

Cllr Thorpe has also written to all parents advising them to be tested and have their children tested.

Test sites are at: 

  1. The O2 Arena car park on Greenwich Peninsula 
  2. The University of Greenwich Avery Hill Campus – Southwood 
  3. Abery Street Car Park in Plumstead 
  4. De Vere Devonport House Car Park in Greenwich Town 
  5. Charlton Athletic Football Club Car Park 

You can also order a home testing kit to be sent to your home and posted back for processing.

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