Labour councillors from across West Sussex unite to demand schools remain closed until safe to open

Over 40 Labour councillors from local authorities across West Sussex have united to sign an open letter to the Tory-run county council urging it to oppose the Government’s plans to re-open schools in the county on June 1st, citing concerns for the negative impact on public health and the risk of a premature unsafe re-opening causing a second wave of coronavirus infections.

In the letter to the Cabinet Member for Education at West Sussex County Council, Nigel Jupp (Con, Southwater and Nuthurst), the Labour councillors express their serious concerns at the Government’s plan to increase pupil numbers on 1 June and the threat this plan poses to the health and safety of pupils, parents, staff and the wider community.

• The councillors warn that the Government has failed to meet its own five key tests; meaning a safe increase in pupils on this day is not possible and state their belief that West Sussex County Council, as the local authority responsible for education provision in the county have a responsibility to speak out to ensure the safety of all those who work in schools, pupils and the wider community.

• They call on the county council to oppose the re-opening and follow the example of at least 18 other local education authorities who have already told the Government they refuse to open due to public safety concerns.  Examples of councils who have already done so include Liverpool, Birmingham, Solihull, Essex, Slough and Brighton and Hove.

• The councillors express their doubts that the Government guidance for introducing children in a safe environment cannot be met. including reducing class sizes, up to groups of 15 children which they believe many local West Sussex schools will find impossible to achieve.

• They also warn of the lack of evidence that children transmit the virus any less than adults, and the serious risk to teaching and non-teaching staff in the school environment, if children can be asymptomatic carriers.

• The councillors further call on the West Sussex Tory Cabinet to make public these concerns and to write to Head teachers of council-owned “maintained” schools and also Multi Academy Trusts in West Sussex to set out that he does not believe the artificial 1st June deadline for re-opening schools is one he expects schools to meet when it will be to the detriment of public safety and public health objectives.

The councillors also call on the county council to ensure that the Government work to create the conditions for a safe return to schools based on the principles and five tests set out below:

• Safety and welfare of pupils and staff as the paramount principle.

• No increase in pupil numbers until full rollout of a national test and trace scheme.

• A national Covid-19 education taskforce with Government, unions and education stakeholders to agree statutory guidance for the safe reopening of schools.

• Consideration of the specific needs of vulnerable students and families facing economic disadvantage.

• Additional resources for enhanced school cleaning, PPE and risk assessments.

• Local autonomy to close schools where testing indicates clusters of new Covid-19 cases.

Speaking after sending the letter on behalf of Labour councillors to the Cabinet Member, Labour Group Leader on West Sussex County Council Michael Jones said:

“This headlong rush by the Government to get children back to school risks a second wave of the coronavirus worse than the first.  As local representatives, we could not have it on our consciences to stand meekly by while the county council goes along with this, there are so many health risks and practical problems which can’t and won’t be addressed satisfactorily in the time available.

“There are a growing number of councils refusing to agree to the Government’s insistence on re-opening schools on this arbitrary date with the absence of those safeguards to ensure the children, the staff at the school and the local community will be safe.  It’s time West Sussex County Council did the decent thing too, listen to the teaching and support staff unions and add our council to that growing list of authorities who are putting the safety of their residents first.”

Labour county councillor Karen Sudan (Northgate and West Green), who is a former deputy headteacher and is also Labour’s member on the county council’s Children and Young People’s Services scrutiny committee, agreed with Councillor Jones, adding:

“Much has been said about the ways that staff will manage children’s return to school in such a way as to meet the requirements for social distancing.  We have all seen images of teachers rearranging tables in empty classrooms.

“In reality, it is not possible to meet social-distancing and other requirements and, at the same time, manage things so that children are able to thrive and learn. The only way to keep children more than one metre apart from one another at all times would be if they were to sit in one place the whole time.  Even if this was possible – think about your own children and those you know – it is not healthy.  It is essential for children’s well-being that they are active – not to mention the stress and psychological damage caused by expecting young humans to behave in a way that is totally unnatural.”

Labour Leader of Crawley Borough Council Councillor Peter Lamb (Northgate and West Green), speaking on behalf of his Borough councillors, said:

“The Government’s own advice shows there is no evidence children are any less likely than adults to catch or transmit Covid-19, only that they are less likely to need hospitalisation if they do catch it. This makes children the most effective carriers of the disease, something you cannot control effectively in a school environment.

“In Crawley we are doing everything we can to stop the spread of the disease, to save lives and enable the fastest possible recovery.  Re-opening the schools now renders pointless all the sacrifices our community has already made.”

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