County councillors hear concerns over safe return to schools plans

Classroom file pic.

The  Government’s plan for a safe return to schools could be seriously undermined if pupils opt to sidestep Covid tests and decide not to wear masks, a North Yorkshire County Council meeting has heard.

Multiple concerns for both school staff and children have been laid bare ahead of pupils’ return to classrooms from March 8, which health and safety consultant Ross Strachan emphasised were “not necessarily safe”.

Representing North Yorkshire’s secondary school teachers, Mr Strachan told the county council’s young person’s scrutiny committee that the authority had ignored appeals to provide teachers with personal protective equipment despite testing and the wearing of face masks being “purely optional” for children.

The authority’s director of the children and young people’s service Stuart Carlton had told the meeting social distancing was impossible at many schools.

He said the latest government advice for secondary pupils to wear masks on transport to and from schools, in communal areas and in classrooms where social distancing is not possible, effectively from 8.30am to the late afternoon, was “a big ask”. Mr Carlton said the Department for Education had told him the guidance would be reviewed after three weeks.

He said: “My advice to our secondary schools would be to look at this cautiously. There are lots of problems with the ill use of masks for long periods of time.”

He said getting children back to school was of paramount importance, regardless of whether they agreed to be tested, but warned it would be a “big logistical exercise” to try and test every child three times before they return to class-based lessons.

He added: “Education is compulsory, testing isn’t quite as compulsory. It’s done voluntarily and by consent.”

Mr Carlton said after the previous lockdown, when there was no testing, attendance at school had been over 90 per cent, and he hoped attendance would be higher still from March 8.

Mr Strachan told the meeting extra costs from hygiene measures was contributing to the financial strain on schools. He said: “We are now going through redundancies as a result. We are losing staff from schools for next year.”

He as a result said children would return in September to a less safe environment with fewer members of staff and higher class numbers.

Mr Strachan said: “Kids need to be back in school, but they need t be back in school safely, From a staffing point of view that needs to be ensured. We have new variants of Covid seem to be far more prevalent in air, so ventilation in the room is key, and there hasn’t been any initiative to go around schools to test air flow.

He some clinically vulnerable school staff would be exposed to increased danger, but the council had ignored calls to issue face masks that protect wearers.

Mr Strachan said: “For staff there is a lot of stress, a lot of worry, they’re stilll being put back into classrooms that are not necessarily safe. It is important that the appropriate hazard contrl measures are made available for staff and I don’t believe that is the case just now.”

Mr Carlton replied that the authority was doing all that it could within government guidance.