Lib Dem leader warns re-opening primary schools in Cambridgeshire 'seems risky'

Lucy Nethsingha

Lucy Nethsingha, Lib Dem group leader at Cambridgeshire County Council - Credit: Lib Dem

Re-opening primary schools across Cambridgeshire was today described as “risky” by a senior politician.  

Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrat Group leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha said: “With the number of cases still rising across the county, and pressure increasing on NHS services in neighbouring areas, re-opening primary schools seems risky. 

“We all agree we would prefer to have children back in school, but only if it is safe for both children, families and staff.” 

She added: “We have all seen the impact of the new variant on NHS capacity in London, and with bed space in the East of England already being taken up with patients being moved out of London and Essex, reducing infection rates must be the top priority.” 

Cambridgeshire County Council re-iterated last night that all secondary age pupils will have a phased return prior to all pupils return on January 18.  

“However, under current legislation all other education establishments (including early years, primary, infant, junior, specialist and alternative provision) are required to reopen fully during the week commencing January 4,” said a county council spokesperson. 

This was supported by government guidance and recent announcements by both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education. All schools have completed health and safety risk assessments. 

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The spokesperson said that the latest Covid-19 weekly infection rates for Cambridgeshire and in Peterborough are below both the England average and the East of England average.  

“These rates are updated on a daily basis and both councils monitor them closely,” said the spokesperson. 

“Covid-19 infection rates remain higher in Peterborough than in Cambridgeshire, although are rising more rapidly in Cambridgeshire.” 

The county council says it has issued advice to schools, following a number of the trade unions representing school staff recommending to their members that they don’t attend school due to safety concerns.  

“Unions have further advised that they should only support either remote education or face to face support vulnerable and key worker children who attend schools,” said the spokesperson. 

“As a result, schools have been asked to establish the impact this might have on being able to deliver education in school. 

“The county council believes that a blanket closure of schools is not the correct response when taking account of the overall national position and guidance and what is best for pupils.” 

The council says it has adopted the following stance:  

1: Where schools are unable to operate safely due to a lack of staff, all maintained schools will be fully supported to make decisions over either partial closure or full closure of the school.  

Remote learning will be offered to any pupil whose bubble or school is closed. This will be reviewed on a daily basis in line with the school’s individual risk assessment. 

2: The current Covid-19 situation will be monitored on a bi-weekly basis, at ward and school catchment area.  

If the council determines that there is a high and increasing trend in infection levels equivalent to that in other areas where there has been national direction to close schools, they will seek support from the Department for Education to close the school to all but vulnerable and key worker children. This information will be shared with schools to inform their risk assessments. 

The county council says it wrote to the Regional School Commissioner on New Year’s Eve to discuss the approach to areas where data around infections suggests there are concerns. A meeting will be taking place this week to discuss the situation in Cambridgeshire. 

The spokesperson said: “The preventative measures that educational establishments have put in place have been hugely effective in managing Covid-19 cases and staff have worked relentlessly.  

“The support of parents has also been crucial and they have worked closely with schools to both reduce the spread of the virus and ensure their children are able to continue with their education. 

“If parents are concerned about the safety of their child returning to their education setting, please speak to school/college leaders for further advice on the precautions they are taking. For school age pupils up to the end of year 11, attendance remains compulsory.” 

The spokesperson said the information is correct as of January 3 and further updates will be issued in the coming days if needed. 

Academy schools are autonomous of the local authority but this advice has been issued to them and it will be for individual academy trusts to decide their position in relation to reopening. 

“Our advice applies to all education establishments including early years settings and colleges,” the spokesperson added.  

Cambridgeshire National Education Union has launched a petition to be presented to Cambridgeshire County Council calling for “No return to unsafe schools” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic until at least January 18.