More than a dozen local councils in England may not meet the government’s 1 June deadline for reopening schools.
A number of local authorities, many of which are Labour-run and based in the north, have said it’s ‘unlikely’ their schools will be ready to welcome back pupils by the start of next month.
At least 12 local authorities have raised concerns about admitting more children to primary schools from 1 June, according to a PA survey of local authorities in England, with more councils speaking out each day.
Sunderland, Liverpool, Bury and Hartlepool are among the councils unlikely to meet the deadline.
Liverpool city council was thought to be the first authority to break ranks from the government’s guidance, after the city’s mayor said ‘we will only support the schools reopening when we are satisfied it is safe to do so’.
Richard Watts, leader of Islington Council in north London, said on Wednesday that the council did not support rushing to hit an “arbitrary deadline” set by ministers, adding that he recognised the “grave concerns” from parents.
Meanwhile, other local authorities have said a phased approach will be needed next month to minimise safety risks.
Sandwell Council in the West Midlands has said not all children in nursery, reception, year one and year six will be able to start “on a full-time basis” from June 1 due to the size of classrooms.
Pushback from teachers’ unions over safety concerns has led to justice secretary Robert Buckland admitting there may not be a “uniform approach” to reopening on 1 June.
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Buckland told BBC Breakfast: “I don't think any of us want to put either children or our dedicated teaching staff in any danger at all, and the question of being safe is clearly paramount.
“So we're all working towards 1 June and planning for that return, but I accept the point that there may well be issues from employers that need to be addressed which might not mean we'll see a uniform approach on 1 June.”
He said conversations are continuing between the government and teachers' representatives and that 1 June was just a conditional date.
Buckland said: “I think we've got to listen to what we're being told and to engage and to persuade and to make sure the necessary arrangements are in place.”
Professor Dame Angela McLean, chief scientific adviser for the Ministry of Defence, suggested on Tuesday a highly effective track, trace and isolate system needs to be running for lockdown measures to be eased.
Councils which may not meet 1 June deadline, and what they said:
Sunderland city council: ‘We cannot expect teachers – or children – to be in a school environment in Sunderland unless they know that it is safe for them, and there are serious question marks about that presently, based on the localised health picture in the north-east.’
Solihull council, West Mids: ‘..Places may only be available from the week beginning 8 June.
Liverpool city council: ‘We will only support the schools reopening when we are satisfied that it is safe to do so.’
Sefton council, Merseyside: ‘We... do not expect childcare providers or schools to adhere to government guidance in terms of timescales, or the suggested year groups, if they judge this not to be in the best interest of children.
Bury council: ‘Bury’s schools will reopen as soon as it is safe to do so.’
Hartlepool council: ‘Given that coronavirus cases locally continue to rise … [the] council has been working with schools and we have agreed they will not reopen on Monday 1 June.’
Rochdale council: 'In Rochdale we are determined to do the right thing for our children, families and schools... this may not fit with the expectations or timescale of government.'
Calderdale, West Yorks: ‘More children should only return to school when we are confident that it is safe. We should not put them, their families and our communities at risk.’
Leeds city council: ‘It would be impossible for all schools to meet the government’s timetable.’
Sheffield city council: ‘Different schools will need to work at the right pace from them and it could mean not all schools are ready to do this on 1 June for all year groups mentioned in the government’s announcement.’
Birmingham city council: ‘We recognise that for some schools, opening to more pupils safely may not be possible on 1 June.’
Southampton city council: ‘While we all want children to be able to return once the conditions are right, we also know that every school is different.’
Knowsley council, Merseyside: ‘Everyone involved in education in this borough is clear: the decision to reopen schools will be taken only when it is safe to do so – and not just to meet a particular date, or to do so ‘quickly’.’
Health secretary Matt Hancock said last week the contact tracing app – part of test, track and trace – would be rolled out across England from mid-May but that has now been pushed back, with Buckland suggesting it would not be ready for several weeks.
Asked on Wednesday if schools reopening depends on test, track and trace being fully in place, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think the position is somewhat more nuanced than that.
“We are seeing conversations continue between the government and teachers that, in some settings, arrangements are being made that lead to a high degree of confidence that the risks can be managed and that the setting can be safe.
“Clearly other employers feel that that’s not the case and we have to understand and respect that.”
Home secretary Priti Patel has said no sanctions should be taken against councils or teachers who refuse to reopen schools.
She told LBC: “No. First of all, we are not at the 1 June yet, we have time to work together.
“It’s wrong to sort of say, well, ‘X’ needs a sanction or ‘Y’ needs a sanction.”
But she added there needs to be a “pragmatic solution”.
Asked whether she would feel confident sending her child back to primary school, she replied: “I would be.”
At the moment, reception, year 1 and year 6 are due to go back from 1 June at the earliest, with other years to be phased in before the summer break.