COVID-19: Schools update - 3 January

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schools update

For attention of Primary Head Teachers

Dear Colleagues,

Last week, we have been following closely the introduction of the contingencies framework for schools and the subsequent changes to the framework for London and parts of Essex. The situation in Cumbria, in terms of the rate of infection and the situation in hospitals in the county, is concerning. As a consequence, over the course of the weekend, we have been in close communication with the DfE and with professional associations with regard to the proposed return to school for primary aged pupils in the county either tomorrow or Tuesday.

Following our conversations with the DfE, we have sent the attached letter to the DfE this morning, which sets out the situation, and recommends that the whole of the county be added to the contingencies framework. In addition, the letter formally requests that the DfE adds Carlisle and Eden be added to the framework.

The decision to add schools or district areas to the contingencies framework is a national decision taken at ministerial level, and we have stressed the importance of a quick response to our letter, which we will share with you all later today as soon as we receive it.

In the event that the DfE’s response to our request is positive, then you will be able to communicate this to your staff, governors and parents as soon as you receive this communication.

In the event that the response is either partially or wholly negative, then we will be faced with a number of different challenges. The national position will continue to be that primary schools should prepare to open as planned on either the 4th or 5th of January. This operational decision will be complicated by staffing availability. In parallel with these conversations, we recognise that your valued staff members will have been engaging closely with their professional associations and that many of them will already have communicated with you about their availability, or lack thereof, for work next week, citing Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. Colleagues will therefore have a good idea of what their staffing capacity might look like.

In the event of a negative response to our request, any operational decision to close your school due to low staff numbers will of course be taken locally in conversation between yourselves and your governing bodies. As a Local Authority, we are absolutely supportive of any schools which take the decision to close to all but key worker and vulnerable children as a result of insufficient staffing to guarantee safe ratios. Of course, there exists a potential situation in which staffing levels are so low that even these key groups are not able to attend school. Clearly, we hope that this situation is kept to a minimum, but we cannot exclude it entirely, and will have to take stock and consider next steps in relation to that as the situation evolves.

We are very keen to avoid a chaotic response to this already very pressured situation. As such, if you have not already done so, we recommend that you formally ask your staff members for an indication, if they have not already given it, as to their availability for work this week. Needless to say, we would all want to know today about any colleagues citing Section 44, rather than tomorrow or Tuesday morning.

I have communicated all of this information this morning to the Local Resilience Forum Strategic Co-ordination Group, attended by senior colleagues from across police, fire, health and third sector systems, as well as significant employers like BAE and Sellafield. As such, these key worker employers are aware of the situation.

If we have not heard by 3.00pm from the DfE, our advice is that you communicate with your parent/carers about the current state of play in your school, and the extent to which you will be able to open on Monday or Tuesday.

Can I thank you all for your continued efforts, and apologise to all of you as well for having to write to you on a Sunday with regard to this very concerning situation.

Yours,

Dan Barton
Assistant Director - Education and Skills