Portsmouth primary schools start closure announcements over Covid infection rates

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PRIMARY schools in Portsmouth are starting to announce they will only open to vulnerable children and those with key worker parents.

Already Fernhurst, Craneswater and St Jude's Church of England junior schools in Southsea have told the city council they will not fully open for the start of term.

Cottage Grove Primary School will also be closed except for vulnerable children and those who have critical worker parents.

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Headteacher Howard Payne at Medina Primary School in Cosham said in a letter that his school will ‘regrettably’ be shut ‘until at least Monday, January 18’ except to the vulnerable and key workers’ children.

File photo of primary school children taking SATs. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA WireFile photo of primary school children taking SATs. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
File photo of primary school children taking SATs. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

It comes after the National Education Union urged its members to not go into schools as they would not be safe with rising Covid-19 infections.

Prime minister Boris Johnson this morning insisted schools were safe. Primaries in London will not reopen at the same time as the rest of the country.

An email from Fernhurst headteacher Roberta Kirby, seen by The News, today said: ‘Fernhurst Junior School will be closed from Monday, January 4 for face to face learning for all but vulnerable pupils and key worker pupils who attended in the spring term.

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It added: ‘This is due to rising levels of infection caused by the new variant and follows advice to staff that it is not safe for us to return to teach such large numbers of pupils.’

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In a letter to parents, Cottage Grove headteacher Polly Honeychurch said: 'I have a large number of staff at Cottage Grove who are in the National Education Union and are following union advice on the safety of opening school for all pupils.

'Therefore, as headteacher, I am currently in a position where I do not have enough staff available to open school safely for all pupils.'

Only children of critical workers and the most vulnerable can attend, with online learning for other pupils.

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She added: ‘I am really sorry for the short notice of the need to move to online learning for the majority of our pupils, but this has been caused by the rising infection rates.

‘As soon as the infection rates fall, and it is safe to do so, we will open school against for all our pupils.’

Suzy Horton, education cabinet member at Portsmouth City Council, told The News: ‘Our position has always been that we will support heads in whatever decision they make, mainly because we can’t tell the schools what do – we can only advise and support them.’

She added: ‘I would support parents, teachers, and schools in their decisions. The situation has been made such a mess and a muddle that people have to do what they feel is right so we’ll be supportive of that locally, even now if it’s locally going to be a mess.’

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Cllr Horton said the NEU held an online meeting today and more teachers had filed letters refusing to come into the workplace as a result.

This, she said, could have forced headteachers to make the decision to stop face-to-face learning for all but children of key workers.

‘It’s not a strike,’ she said. ‘It’s that they're working from home with remote learning.

‘For a headteacher they’ve got to get to a point where it’s a simpler message to say do we now shut the school or keep it open?’

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Deputy council leader Steve Pitt said schools ‘know what’s best for their staff and pupils’ and backed Cllr Horton’s position.

His political view is that primaries’ opening should be pushed back until the majority of secondary school pupils go back on January 18.

Hampshire County Council leader Cllr Keith Mans is taking up the issue with education secretary Gavin Williamson.

In a statement Cllr Mans said: ‘The competing and growing concerns about whether to open or close schools are clearly evident, and the need to strike a balance between the physical and mental well-being of pupils when they do not attend school and the continued spread of the virus.

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‘We understand the government’s exceptionally difficult decisions in this regard – which are based on wider ranges of information than these increasing rates.’

Portsmouth Labour councillor Cal Corkery said he wants to see assurances that parents will not be fined for keeping children off school.

He tweeted: ‘The council now needs to provide assurances to parents of kids in schools which do fully reopen that they won't be fined for keeping them at home due to Covid concerns.’

The last-minute closures are causing confusion and uncertainty for some.

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Libby Webber, a therapist from Bigger Picture Disability Awareness Training, said some of her clients did not know if they could make appointments.

She said: ‘Late decisions on school closures have significant impacts on so many other aspects of life.

‘As a therapist I have clients who still don’t know whether they’ll be able to keep appointments this week, depending on kids being at school or not. Not good for their mental health.’

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: ‘Children’s education has consistently been a national priority, which is why we want classrooms to reopen wherever possible in the new term. Schools will continue to implement appropriate safety measures to help mitigate the risk of transmission.

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‘As we’ve said, we will move to remote education as a last resort, with involvement of public health officials, in areas where infection and pressures on the NHS are highest.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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