Fears over mutant strain’s spread among children puts January return in doubt

Schools could be closed for all of January amid fears that the mutant coronavirus strain spreads more easily among children.

With cases surging in many parts of the country, Downing Street sources admitted yesterday that it was ‘too early’ to guarantee all pupils would be back in their classrooms by January 11.

Officials told the Mail that the reopening of schools was now ‘all down to the science’ surrounding the new strain’s behaviour and its infectiousness in young people.

They even admitted that plans to test all pupils before they return may not be enough to guarantee a January reopening if scientists’ fears about the strain are proven.

Appropriate measures: Priti Patel 

Yesterday, Home Secretary Priti Patel would only commit to saying that schools would go back ‘eventually’, adding that the Government would ‘take all the appropriate measures around protecting children’.

A Downing Street source said: ‘We are looking at the numbers and the evidence around the new strain. 

‘There is some evidence that the new variant spreads more easily among children. 

‘We need to look closely at that as it develops and consider what further action we might need to take to prevent schools becoming a source of infection.’

Publicly, the Department for Education is sticking by its plan which will see most secondary school pupils learning from home until January 11, when they will resume classroom learning.

But officials admit it would be an ‘important moment’ if it’s found that children are now able to spread the virus as easily as adults.

Professor Wendy Barclay, a member of the Government’s respiratory advisory committee Nervtag, said the new strain may be better at infiltrating the body, putting youngsters on a ‘more level playing field’ compared with adults.

The Department for Education is sticking by its plan which will see most secondary school pupils learning from home until January 11, when they will resume classroom learning

 The Department for Education is sticking by its plan which will see most secondary school pupils learning from home until January 11, when they will resume classroom learning

Last night, Labour’s education spokesman Kate Green and schools spokesman Wes Streeting wrote to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson asking that he publish any scientific advice on ‘the spread of the virus in schools and colleges and the risks this poses to students, staff and wider transmission in the community’.

‘Parents, students and staff deserve answers now about how you intend to keep students learning and provide a safe working environment for staff’, they said. Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have both been forced to equivocate on whether term will be able to begin as planned. 

On Monday, the PM was unable to guarantee schools resuming in-person teaching in January, saying the plan for a staggered return would go ahead ‘if we possibly can’.

The start to the spring term has already been delayed by ministers. Under the current plan, only those facing GCSEs and A-levels in the summer, as well as the children of key workers and those in vulnerable situations, will have face-to-face learning in the week starting January 4.

This is to try to give schools time to set up a system of lateral flow testing for all students and staff, starting with year groups who are in school, followed by those learning from home.

But with less than a fortnight to go, schools are yet to receive instructions from ministers as to how to go about setting up testing facilities and recruiting volunteers to run the programme.

The Department for Education hopes the lack of time – as well as a lack of support from teachers – can be overcome with assistance from military planners and goodwill from parents offering help. 

But some school leaders are already preparing themselves for a widespread return to school being delayed until February.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has urged Mr Williamson’s department to ‘not rigidly stick to its plan come what may’.

Sources insist the Education Secretary is ‘not being doctrinaire’ and will heed SAGE advice, including on whether the testing system will be enough to guarantee safety in schools.

An important scientific justification for keeping schools open dates back to August, when the Chief and Deputy Chief Medical Officers of the UK wrote a joint statement in support.

In it, they said that the ‘reopening of schools has usually not been followed by a surge of Covid-19 in a timescale that implies schools are the principal reason for the surge’.

However there is renewed scientific interest in the role schools could have played in transmission more recently, when infections rose in areas like Kent despite a host of counter-measures.

The Harris Federation’s Sir Dan Moynihan told the BBC his schools in the South East ‘were surprised and confused to see an almost exponential rise in the number of case’ over the last few weeks.

He suggested that safety procedures which had been working well had ceased to be effective and that this could be explained by the mutant strain’s increased transmissibility.

‘Certainly, in the final week of term we had 750 positive confirmed cases in our schools, and if you were to plot this on a line graph, it’s a pretty steep line from the middle of November to now’, he said,

‘We couldn’t really understand why because our systems and procedures are rigorous for keeping people separate and distanced. 

And the Government’s announcement about a new variant and possible easier transmission seems to explain what we were looking at.’

In a further evidence of a shift of direction, the Department for Education last night admitted the plan to reopen schools was under ‘constant review’.

‘We want all pupils to return in January as school is the best place for their development and mental health, but as the Prime Minister has said, it is right that we follow the path of the pandemic and keep our approach under constant review,’ a spokesman said. 

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