Teachers’ union leaders remain unconvinced that it will be safe to reopen schools in England on 1 June – after the publication of evidence from the government’s scientific advisers.
Paul Whiteman of the NAHT head teachers’ union says there is still no proof it would be a “wise thing to do”.
Some councils also reject plans for a phased return for primary pupils.
The Department for Education has said returning to school is particularly important for disadvantaged children.
It is aiming for children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to be invited back into primary schools after half term – and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson says the scientific evidence supports this “phased, cautious return”.
Teachers’ leaders had challenged ministers to publish the advice showing that it would be safe for children and staff to go back to school.
But the unions’ responses suggest the stand-off will continue – with warnings that the evidence released by the SAGE scientific advisory group is “inconclusive”.
“It will quickly become clear to anybody reading the papers that the science is not definitive,” said Geoff Barton, leader of the secondary heads teachers’ union, ASCL.
“The papers highlight the significant gaps in evidence, knowledge and understanding,” said Patrick Roach, leader of the Nasuwt teachers’ union.
Mary Bousted, co-leader of the National Education Union, said there was still only “weak evidence” on safety.
“We are surprised that the wider opening of schools proposed by Boris Johnson has not been modelled by SAGE.
“This points to a cavalier attitude towards the nation’s children,” said Dr Bousted.
Instead, seven other scenarios were modelled, with the DfE’s preferred option being a combination of two options.
In its evidence, the scientific advisory group said the role of children in the transmission of Covid-19 was uncertain – and it “cannot be clear” the extent to which schools could be reopened without increasing the virus.
It said the risk to pupils of going back to school was “very, very small, but it is not zero”.
While children seem less likely to be severely ill from coronavirus, there is less clear-cut evidence on how likely they are to be infected or spread the virus.
In scenarios for opening schools, the committee found opening nurseries and reception classes would have a smaller effect on the spread of the virus than primary schools – but opening secondary schools could have a bigger impact.
The advice says strategies such as pupils coming in on alternate weeks could be “good ways to stop extensive transmission chains in school”.
However, the advice also notes there is “limited evidence” on the impact of school closures on the rate of Covid-19 infections.
This is because the steps were taken at the same time as other lockdown measures – and it is “difficult to disentangle the individual impacts”.
Since Boris Johnson announced in early May the intention to reopen schools on 1 June, if conditions were right, teachers and heads have been asking to see the advice on which the decision was based.
Since then, they have begun calling for a far more regional approach, with local authorities being given the final call.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “The papers published by SAGE today show that the phased, cautious return of a limited number of pupils to classrooms has been a carefully considered decision based on the best scientific and medical advice.”
The Department for Education has also highlighted that schools could open from 1 June, but it was not to be seen as a specific deadline.
School in Wales will not go back on 1 June, but a date has not yet been sent.