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We'll open our schools only when it's safe, North East leaders tell the Government.

Byline: IAN JOHNSON Reporter ian.johnson01@reachplc..co.uk

NORTH East leaders have said schools will reopen only when it is safe to do so - rather than following the Government's June 1 target.

Teaching unions and parents have voiced concerns over Boris Johnson's vow to have classrooms up and running within two weeks.

Nationally, schools have remained partially open during the coronavirus lockdown for the children of key workers but, due to limited demand, social distancing has been seen as successful.

Politicians in Liverpool and Hartlepool have said their schools will not reopen while the country remains in lockdown.

And in the North East Gateshead, Durham and Newcastle councils have all said the health and safety of pupils must come first.

Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon, who last week told residents to ignore Government advice to stay alert and instead said they should stay at home, said his council "will fully support" any school which feels it can't comply with Government instructions.

And while Newcastle City Council said it is working to help schools which feel ready to reopen it will not rush any who feel June 1 is premature.

"A final decision will not be made until we are all satisfied everything is in place to enable a school to reopen safely," added a spokesperson.

Councillor Nick Kemp, co-chairman of Byker Primary School board of governors accused the Government of treating children as "guinea pigs" on the path out of lockdown.

In a letter to the Journal Cllr Kemp said governors were not prepared to risk the safety of parents or children in reopening too soon.

He said: "What we hear from Government is mixed messages and the idea that schools can be guinea pigs for the phased unlock.

"We wholly disagree with this reckless approach. We are speaking regularly with our parents and staff and listening to their concerns.

"This must be our priority.

"We will not allow the safety of staff and students be put at risk, and we stand as a governing body in solidarity with the staff, students and teaching unions against the wider opening until we can have total assurance of safety for all."

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove has said he's "confident that children and teachers will be safe" when classes eventually restart.

Both Newcastle and North Tyneside Councils told the Journal that parents will be notified when the time is right for schools to reopen while Northumberland County Council said it was reviewing measures put in place and would await further clarification.

Some schools have shared the measures put in place such as staggered lunch times and socially distanced desks but unions have voiced concerns.

A joint statement from unions in the Trades Union Congress last week raised fears that staff "will not be protected".

It added: "We do not think that the Government should be posing this level of risk to our society."

In Durham parents have been told to do what they think is best for their children.

Cllr Olwyn Gunn, cabinet member for children and young people's services at Durham County Council, said: "There is no simple answer to the phased reopening and I'm acutely aware that there is a nervousness about returning too early."

Reassuring parents they wouldn't be penalised for keeping their children at home, she added: "Parents and carers can make the choice they feel is right for their children and should not be pressured into a decision they are uncomfortable with." Jacqui Old, North Tyneside Council Director of Children's and Adult Services, added: "Any reopening of schools will be planned and phased to ensure that no one is put at risk."

Sunderland City Council and South Tyneside Council did not respond to requests for comment.

What did each council say? Newcastle City Council "Our priority is to ensure schools can reopen safely and securely, in a cautious manner with the health and wellbeing of pupils and staff the first priority.

"Newcastle City Council is working proactively with all schools across the city to look at how they can open for specified age groups after the half term holiday, in line with the national government ambition.

"The council is helping schools in their risk assessments with input from a range of teams including HR, Health and Safety, education services and facilities management. "A final decision will not be made until we are all satisfied everything is in place to enable a school to reopen safely."

Durham City Council Cllr Olwyn Gunn, Cabinet member for children and young people's services, said: "The Government's announcement on a phased return to school is both controversial and complex, but the safety of children and staff is paramount.

"Since the Government 'lockdown', schools have remained open for some pupils. During that time we have been supporting them and will continue to support them through this next challenge.

"There is no simple answer to the phased reopening and I'm acutely aware that there is a nervousness about returning too early. This is completely understandable and whilst it will be great for all children to return to school, parents, carers and staff need reassurance regarding safety.

"Durham County Council has provided extensive guidance to schools around a phased reopening and decisions on the timing of it and the number of pupils returning will be based on an individual, rigorous risk assessment for each school.

"In line with national guidance, parents and carers can be assured that they will not be penalised if they make the decision not to send their children back to school whilst we are in the process of the Government's proposed phased return.

"Parents and carers can make the choice they feel is right for their children and should not be pressured into a decision they are uncomfortable with.

Northumberland County Council Cath McEvoy-Carr, executive director of adults and children's services, said: "Keeping pupils and staff safe in schools is our top priority.

"We are reviewing the information provided by the Government and will be working with head teachers in schools across the county to determine what this might look like in Northumberland. We await further guidance and information as to how this will be progressed."

Cllr Wayne Daley, deputy leader and cabinet member for Children's Services at Northumberland County Council added: "We know this is a worrying time for everyone and parents may be especially concerned about their children returning to school.

"We will be working closely with schools in the planning of any targeted reopening and will do everything we can to support children and their families."

North Tyneside Council Jacqui Old, North Tyneside Council's director of children's and adult services, said: "We are working with Headteachers in North Tyneside to prepare for a safe reopening of schools to some year groups.

"Staff and pupil safety is the primary concern. Any reopening of schools will be planned and phased to ensure that no one is put at risk.

"The Government directive stated that schools could reopen on June 1 only if infection rates continue to fall. We will continue to monitor the situation nationally and regionally so we can plan accordingly for appropriate action."

Gateshead Council Statement from the Leader of the Council, Councillor Martin Gannon and Cabinet member for Children and Young People, Councillor Gary Haley "Firstly, it is important to recognise that our schools have been open throughout the current crisis, supporting the children of key workers and going over and beyond to support our most vulnerable children. Our schools have been visiting vulnerable children several times a week at home, providing support and even home delivering school meals and essential supplies. Support to not just the children, but their families.

"Our schools are currently consulting with parents on whether subject to the school extending its provision, they would consider sending their children to school or not.

"It is the decision of the headteacher and governors of each school to determine whether or not they can comply with government instruction, partly or fully.

"The council will provide support and guidance to each and every school that seeks it. We have absolute confidence that each school will determine the risk, and will make the right decision for their schools, pupils, staff and parents. The council will fully support any school that after careful consideration of all these factors, determines that they cannot comply with government instruction.

Parents and carers can make the choice they feel is right for their children...

CAPTION(S):

Clockwise, from top left, Martin Gannon, Nick Kemp, Cath McEvoy-Carr and Olwyn Gunn
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Author:IAN JOHNSON Reporter ian.johnson01@reachplc..co.uk
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 20, 2020
Words:1418
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