The government has launched legal action against a London council over plans to close schools, using emergency coronavirus legislation for the first time to ensure schools are kept open for face-to-face learning until the end of term.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, issued a “temporary continuity direction” to Greenwich council, demanding the immediate withdrawal of a letter issued to headteachers over the weekend advising them to close schools early and switch to remote learning amid rising Covid infection rates in the capital.
Although the government has previously threatened legal action, this latest move signals its determination to keep schools open in the run-up to the Christmas holidays and beyond. If Greenwich fails to comply the Department for Education can seek a court injunction.
Greenwich and Islington councils had advised schools to close, except to the children of key workers and those classed as vulnerable, and switch to online lessons in the last few days of term to help slow the spread of the virus. The government has not yet launched legal action against Islington.
Williamson said: “It is simply not in children’s best interests for schools in Greenwich, Islington or elsewhere to close their doors. I have always been clear that using legal powers is a last resort but continuity of education is a national priority.
“That’s why I won’t hesitate to do what is right for young people and have issued a direction to Greenwich council setting out that they must withdraw the letter issued to headteachers on Sunday.”
Greenwich council’s leader, Danny Thorpe, said the council was seeking legal advice but the government’s intervention had come too late to change arrangements for Tuesday, when some schools in the borough will switch to online, while others had already decided to remain open.
On Monday the schools minister, Nick Gibb, wrote to every school in the two boroughs reminding them of their duty to remain open and instructing them to tell parents that children should attend unless asked to self-isolate.
The warnings came as dozens of schools in London and Essex closed or prepared to close to almost all pupils and move to remote learning. The biggest spreader of the virus in the capital is education settings, particularly among pupils aged 10 to 19, data has showed.
Parents in the London borough of Waltham Forest were among the latest to receive letters about closures from Tuesday. “Each individual school will make their own decision and will contact parents to make arrangements for children’s continued learning this week,” said Clare Coghill, the leader of Waltham Forest council.
“I believe that this emergency action is needed at this time because of the high level of infection rates alongside the time of the year where we know that people are planning to get together under the government’s Christmas guidelines. This makes the risk of infection particularly high.”
In the Covid hotspot of Basildon, Essex, eight out of the nine secondary schools have moved to remote education, as have 17 out of 48 primary schools.
Meanwhile, the government is expected to announce plans for serial testing of pupils and staff in schools in England from the new year to help limit the spread of the disease and reduce the numbers being sent home to self-isolate.
Under the plans, teachers will be given weekly tests to screen for the virus. Where pupils and staff have been in close contact with a positive case, they will be offered daily testing over seven days to let them remain in school while they test negative, sources told the Guardian.
Teaching unions expressed dismay at the government crackdown. “This is a desperate move from government ministers who have lost the plot,” said Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union. “Rather than resorting to legal action, ministers should be supporting heads to make professional judgements on the safety, or otherwise, of their school remaining open.”
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, earlier urged the prime minister to consider letting schools across the city close early this week and remain shut for longer after Christmas to slow infection rates.
Khan called for mass testing at all London schools this week. Currently testing is being targeted at schools in seven boroughs with the highest infection rates.
He also demanded face coverings be made mandatory in busy public places crowded with Christmas shoppers.
His letter to Boris Johnson, also signed by the chair of London Councils, Georgia Gould, said the biggest spread of the virus in the capital was within education settings.
“Levels of testing in London remain the lowest in England and it is vital that asymptomatic testing is extended at a minimum to all Londoners who are unable to work from home, and to all pupils at secondary schools, sixth form and FE colleges this week, so that positive cases are able to self-isolate and prevent ongoing transmission to people in their communities.”
Experts cautioned that closing schools would come with other public health costs. “It would absolutely make a difference to the reproduction number, or R value, of coronavirus transmission,” said Dr Kit Yates, the co-director of the centre for mathematical biology at the University of Bath. “It’s definitely one of the bigger things you can do to bring R down.”
He suggested looking at France, where even younger pupils have been wearing masks in classrooms rather than just in corridors, as in Britain, and it appeared to have had an impact.
Stephen Reicher, a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, said: “At a minimum, families should have the right to withdraw their children at present in order to ensure that safety can be assured at Christmas. That’s something that would need to start immediately so that there could be 10 days of separation.
“A different question is whether, at certain levels of infection, schools should close for everyone simply to protect from community transmission. The exact level is for epidemiologists to debate, but the basic problem with closing schools is that it puts so much of a load on parents, especially those with younger children, unless there really is the right support.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is a national priority to keep education settings open full time and it is vital that children remain in school until the end of the term.”