Southend-on-Sea Borough Council has written to all local schools saying it will support them if they wish to have a flexible and phased return for the first week of term in January.
A phased return would allow secondary schools to get staff trained for the mass testing announced by Government and provide a further opportunity to prevent the spread of COVID-19 which has risen rapidly locally to see Southend-on-Sea placed in tier 4 restrictions.
If schools decide to implement a phased return, home learning would still need to take place to support learning.
A letter was sent to all head teachers on Friday (18 December) outlining the decision and the reasons behind it, before the Prime Minister’s announcements on Saturday 19 December.
Cllr Anne Jones, cabinet member for children and education, said: “We have listened to our head teachers who have raised significant concerns over the return to school in January.
“In light of the Government’s introduction of tier 4 restrictions and cancelling the relaxation of rules over Christmas, it is even more important that we do all we can to protect our local health services, protect our community, and slow the spread of the virus.
“We have watched as the numbers have steadily risen over the last week of the autumn term, of schoolchildren and staff with positive tests or self-isolating due to being in contact with a positive result.
“We want to protect as many people as possible and help schools and teachers too, and strongly believe giving our support to schools on this is the right thing to do. We will continue to work with schools and public health in order to ensure children, families and school staff remain safe.”
Schools will remain open for the children of key workers and vulnerable children. Early years services, nurseries and childminders will not be affected.
Cllr Ian Gilbert, leader of the council, said: “We believe schools are best placed to make their own decisions on this, and we will support primary schools who also feel they need to take a phased approach to returning to school. Although mass testing is being rolled out in secondary schools first, we know that primary schools will also face challenges and pressures after the Christmas break too.
“We understand that working parents might find this problematic, but we feel we need to support our schools at a time when they have been working harder than ever to keep schools open, and taking a balance and phased approach will actually help ensure more pupils can attend school from Monday 11 January onwards.
“We also need to consider of the needs of our entire population. We want to protect people from the rising cases of infection and protect our healthcare services so they can concentrate their efforts on the most sick.”
Krishna Ramkhelawon, director of Public Health said: “As the schools closed at the end of December we had seen a significant increase in the number of positive cases among children and staff, in parallel with what is happening in the community.
“The introduction of community asymptomatic testing has enabled us to better understand the level of the virus spread amongst our young people (0-18 years) and we would strongly advise those who are testing positive, to self-isolate to slow down the virus transmission.
“Alongside mass testing in schools in January, the Council is working with the Government to bring additional community asymptomatic testing sites so younger families can get tested before they return to school.
“A flexible approach to the return to school means each school can do what is right for their students and staff and we thoroughly support the measures being taken if it helps slow the spread of Covid-19.”