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Government facing pressure to close Kent primary schools as coronavirus cases heap pressure on NHS

Head teachers are starting legal action against the government in a bid to force ministers to reveal why they think it is safe for schools to reopen on Monday.

Eleven districts in the county will not see the school gates reopen from Monday but with a government U-turn on all schools in London closing, there are demands for the rest of Kent to follow suit.

Pressure is mounting on the government to close all of Kent's primary schools
Pressure is mounting on the government to close all of Kent's primary schools

The National Association of Head Teachers says it has "commenced preliminary steps in legal proceedings against the Department for Education" and is calling upon the government to "remove people in schools from the physical harm caused by the current progress of the disease".

Rising coronavirus case numbers across the south east and huge hospital pressure created by an influx of patients with Covid over the Christmas period led ministers to delay the return for millions of pupils.

But some parents say they "feel sick" at the prospect of sending their children back to school with pupils in east Kent set to return when term begins on January 4.

So far, the government will force schools in Thanet, Dover, Folkestone and Hythe and Canterbury districts to reopen despite schools in every other part of Kent to remain closed for the first week of the new term.

Secondary schools will stay shut while staff set up asymptomatic testing facilities for the planned return of all pupils on January 18. Children of key workers, vulnerable pupils and those in exam years are due to return on January 11.

Ministers are due to meet again today to discuss plans for other parts of the country after the decision on London was made late last night.

Teaching unions say schools must close and are demanding answers from the government with repeated calls to publish scientific evidence and advice about the risks of reopening.

Dr Mary Bousted, head of the National Education Union, said it was "perplexing" to see areas of high Covid infections still set to reopen.

Speaking on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, Dr Bousted said: "'What's really perplexing about this last minute U-turn is not the U-turn, which was entirely necessary, but the fact that the decision was ever made that nine of the boroughs in the city of London would not be part of the closure of primary schools when infection rates were so high.

"It is inexplicable. You don't get this chaos in the other countries of the UK.

"Does the government really believe that somehow Covid in England is different from the other countries of the UK?"

It comes as cases passed 50,000 per day for the last four days and Covid patients across Kent were transferred elsewhere in the country as the number of intensive care patients passed bed capacity.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson last night confirmed all the capital's schools would remain closed next week.

"Kent should be working together as the London boroughs did to push for primary schools shutting in all Kent areas..."

Labour has accused Mr Williamson of "serious incompetence" over the timing of the decision leading to "chaos" for millions of parents, pupils and school staff.

Kent MPs have been pressed to lobby the government to force schools in the rest of the county to stay closed.

Herne Bay teacher Laura George, whose Mrs Education blog website shares details about her experiences of teaching, has called on four MPs – Damian Collins, Sir Roger Gale, Rosie Duffield and Natalie Elphicke – in east Kent to take note of the rising case numbers and to press the government.

She said: "Kent should be working together as the London boroughs did to push for primary schools shutting in all Kent areas."

Parents commenting on the government's policy have said they may decide not to send their children back to school from Monday regardless.

Laura Denton said: "I cannot believe in some parts of Kent primary schools are back next week. This is dire."

The government announced a U-turn about London schools but four districts in Kent will be forced to open their schools from Monday
The government announced a U-turn about London schools but four districts in Kent will be forced to open their schools from Monday

Kerry Esteve added: "Close the schools – all ages. Give the NHS a chance."

Lisa Carter said: "All the schools should stay shut until this is under control, it’s really worrying."

Shadow education secretary Kate Green MP wrote to Mr Williamson yesterday urging for more clarity on plans to safely reopen schools amid "deep concern" about the government's current course of action.

She said: "He must end the serial incompetence and urgently clarify how many schools are closing, how many more are at risk, and provide a clear path to reopening for all schools affected.

"With just four days to go parents and pupils are confused about the start of term with dedicated school and college staff again being left to pick-up the pieces. Parents, pupils and staff deserve better."

Kent councillors have also joined the calls to close all Kent schools with Liberal Democrat leader at County Hall, Rob Bird and the group's education spokesman Trudy Dean saying "it makes no sense" to keep schools open.

They said pupils should stay home for two months to allow cases to fall and the NHS to roll out the vaccination programme more widely across the community and hospitals to recover.

In a statement, Cllr Bird and Cllr Dean said: "The Imperial College study of the new strain of the virus shows that it is hugely more infectious. It also shows that cases are highest in children and young people from birth to 19 years right now.

"We know that children are unlikely to suffer serious effects from the virus. But we also know that in recent weeks, despite lockdown, Kent school children have been bringing the infection from school back into their homes.

"This has led to cases rocketing, filling our hospitals with older and more vulnerable patients, many more of whom will die.

"Infections rose throughout Kent during the recent lockdown when schools were open. The have now begun to fall have in parts of Kent in recent days, suggesting a possible link to school closures for the Christmas holidays.

"What has happened in the south east will continue to spread to the rest of the country.

"This is a no brainer. All schools must close countrywide to contain the new strain as much as possible, and to allow vaccination programmes to give health workers, key workers, teachers, the elderly and most vulnerable the essential protection they must have. That is likely to take two months."

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