A Catholic headteacher has condemned Government plans to issue fines to parents if they do not send their children back to school in September as “ludicrous” .
The criticism comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said parents will be forced by law to send their children back to school in September, while the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said a return to school will be “compulsory” and families may face financial penalties if they keep their children at home – unless there is a “good reason” for the absence.
However, Michael Ferry, headteacher of St Wilfrid’s Catholic School in Crawley, West Sussex, strongly criticised the plans, warning that it could severely damage vulnerable families.
“A significant amount of our community has been affected by the closure of Gatwick Airport,” he told BBC Breakfast. “If I fine parents £120, we’re effectively saying I’m taking away eight weeks worth of free school meal vouchers because that’s what it amounts to in stark terms.
“I will not be fining parents in any way, shape or form in September and I think it’s ludicrous to suggest it.”
Mr Ferry’s comments came amid reports that whole schools or entire year groups could be ordered to self-isolate if coronavirus outbreaks are detected once pupils return to class in England in September.
Schools in England have been told to keep children in class or year-sized “bubbles” and avoid creating “busy corridors” when all pupils return in an effort to limit the spread of the virus.
Government guidance on how to get all children back after the summer break – following up to six months at home – suggests older pupils should be encouraged to be kept away from other groups of students and staff.
It warns that health protection teams could order the whole school, or all pupils in a year group, to self-isolate at home if schools have two or more confirmed coronavirus cases within a fortnight.
Mr Williamson announced the plans for getting all pupils back on the same day schools in Leicester closed as part of the city’s lockdown extension.
He threatened “very specific action” if schools fail to reopen in September,a nd warned that every child will be expected to attend school in the autumn unless there is a “proper medical reason” for their absence.
Limits on group sizes will be also lifted in nurseries and childminders in England from 20th July so more children can attend in the summer holidays.
Mr Williamson said: “It is critical to ensure that no child loses more time in education and that from September all children who can be at school, are at school.”
He told MPs that the Government will provide all schools and colleges with a small number of home testing kits by the start of the autumn term.
The official guidance says mobile units can be dispatched to schools to test anyone who has been in contact with the child, or member of staff, who has tested positive.
Testing will focus on the person’s class, followed by their year group, then the whole school if necessary.
The Government’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said the outbreak in Leicester was not caused by the return of schools, saying it was “community transmission”.
She urged parents to “control their teenagers” outside of school to stop the spread of coronavirus, adding that school is “quite a controlled environment”.
Mr Williamson said he hoped the Government’s “decisive action” taken in Leicester will avoid another “national shutdown” of schools in the future.
Schools have been told to avoid large gatherings, such as assemblies, and to avoid singing in larger groups, such as school choirs and ensembles.
Break times and start and finish times should be staggered, “walking buses”should be used to reduce the use of public transport.
Mr Williamson has suggested that school buses could also be segregated to ensure pupils remain in their “bubbles” to limit the further spread of coronavirus.
Picture: Prime Minister Boris Johnson leads a socially distanced lesson during a visit to Bovingdon Primary School in Bovingdon, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. (Steve Parsons/PA).