The government faces a major revolt from teachers and headteachers over its plans to reopen schools.
Headteachers began legal action against the Department for Education on Saturday, in an attempt to force ministers to reveal why they think it is safe to reopen schools on Monday, given the higher transmissibility of the new Covid-19 variant, particularly among children.
The National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) and the Association of School and College Leaders have instructed lawyers to write to the government, giving it until the end of the working day on Monday to share any information and scientific data that suggests that it is safe for schools to return.
The NAHT also plans to issue guidance to headteachers, which will recommend they take no action against staff who refuse to return to work because they feel it is unsafe.
The Observer also understands that the UK’s largest teaching union is poised to caution teachers not to return to their classrooms on Monday over safety fears.
The National Education Union (NEU), which represents the majority of teachers and more than 450,000 school staff in the UK, will inform its members that it is not safe for them to return to school until mid-January at the earliest.
It expects most of its members will follow its advice, forcing most schools to switch to online learning for the majority of their pupils.
The union will provide its members with a template letter to send to their headteachers, explaining that they are refusing to go into work because their workplace is unsafe, a right enshrined in law by section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.
Staff should still be prepared to work remotely, the union says, and should volunteer to look after vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers on school premises.
The government is expecting primary schools in England to reopen in two days, with the exception, after another U-turn on Friday, of all schools in London and other local authorities in the south where Covid-19 transmission rates are high.
Secondary school pupils in their exam year in England are due to return on 11 January, the date most schools in Wales will also reopen. A week later, on 18 January, all other secondary school students in England are due back, along with all schools in Scotland.
Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the NEU, said the government was being reckless and ignoring the advice of its own experts on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
He said it was clear from the minutes of the latest Sage meeting, which were published on New Year’s Eve, that scientists had told ministers before Christmas that schools must be closed to contain the new, highly transmissible coronavirus variant.
The minutes from 22 December state that “R would be lower with schools closed” and that it was highly unlikely that the government would be able to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant if schools remain open, with further analysis only possible after the impact of the school holidays on transmission rates is known in mid-January.
NEU members who are penalised by their headteachers for refusing to work on school premises can rely on the union for support with any legal action, Courtney said. “The Sage minutes show that there is a well-founded case that it is unsafe for schools to be open, and so we think section 44 will be very usable for that, and we will protect members in those situations,” he said. “But frankly, I think lots of headteachers will also be really concerned about opening schools.”
A paper by the Children’s Task and Finish Group for Sage, also released on 31 December, says evidence is accumulating that supports the view that increased transmission occurs between children when schools are open, particularly among secondary school pupils. A number of data sources show a reduction in transmission in children after schools closed for half term, with transmission rates rising again after the return to school.
The latest coronavirus infection survey shows that infection rates are highest among school-aged children.
“We think we should follow the science. We think that everybody in our country should follow the science,” Courtney said. “We’re confident we’re speaking for society, that the government just isn’t taking care of us.
“They aren’t seeing that you have to take steps to get the virus level down if you want to have continuity of education.”
Vik Chechi-Ribeiro, a secondary school teacher and NEU Manchester vice-president, said: “The government’s reckless plan for … reopening of primary schools risk pouring petrol onto a fire for case rates, hospital admissions and deaths. It also ignores their own advice from Sage.
“Education workers have the right to a safe workplace for themselves, students and the community whilst continuing to provide face to face teaching for key worker and vulnerable students.”
Courtney said ministers in the Department for Education were so “ideologically committed” to exams going ahead that they were prioritising school attendance over the measures needed to suppress virus transmission, which was causing more disruption to pupils’ education overall. “It’s so short-sighted,” he said.
He also said NEU members were reporting a “huge level of anxiety” about schools reopening. “People know of some staff who’ve died and other staff who have got long Covid,” he said, appealing to parents for understanding and support.
“I’d say to parents: before Christmas, cases of the virus were rising very fast among secondary and primary-aged children, and we know that parents and grandparents have been contracting the virus from children. This is about the community as well as education. Having a further period of home learning, disruptive as it is, will hopefully mean cases are much lower when children return. It’s the right thing to do.”