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School Safety: Covid-19

Volume 679: debated on Monday 7 September 2020

What steps he is taking to help ensure the safety of (a) pupils and (b) staff in schools as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (905498)

What steps he is taking to help ensure the safety of (a) pupils and (b) staff in schools as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (905499)

What steps he has taken to ensure that schools are safe for children as they return to the classroom following the covid-19 outbreak. (905515)

We continue to do everything in our power to ensure that all children and staff can be back in the classroom safely. Our guidance is clear: if schools implement the actions set out in the system of controls in that guidance, they will effectively reduce risks in their schools and create an inherently safer environment for all to operate in.

I want to place on record my thanks for the professionalism and efforts of all our teachers and senior leadership teams across the country, who have done such an amazing job over these weeks; I am sure that that is echoed across the Chamber. However, just in the last week after the start of term, we have had 46 cases in schools across the UK and 86 cases in Scotland. A total of 158 schools already have cases. In a Suffolk school—I think it is in the Health Secretary’s constituency—five teachers have tested positive, and the school has had to close. Is the Secretary of State confident that the Government have this under control?

Very much so. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the joint letter from the chief medical officers of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland in which they pointed out that children are best served by being in school, but he is right to highlight the risks and challenges of children returning to school. That is why, at every stage, working right across the sector, we have put in place the strictest level of controls, and a system of controls, in order to create a safe environment for not just the children and those who work in schools, but the community as a whole.

Last week marked the long-awaited return to schools for many students and young people across Coventry North West. However, this was a time marked by anxiety for parents, students and teachers about what school would look like during the pandemic. I have had a number of constituents contact me about being cramped into small spaces and a lack of support for students with pre-existing medical conditions that put them at greater risk of contracting and responding badly to coronavirus. What allowances or provisions have the Government given schools to keep students with pre-existing medical conditions safe, and will they stop passing the buck to schools and make face coverings compulsory in communal areas in secondary schools?

At every stage—when we saw over 1.6 million children return to school before the summer holidays, and as we see the full return after the summer holidays—every precautionary measure that can be taken has been taken to ensure that the needs of children of all ages, including those who suffer disabilities, are properly catered for. If the hon. Lady would like to write to me about specific issues, I would be happy to look at them in detail.

Getting our children back to school is critical. It is vital that there is not just safety in school but safety and capacity within school transport. I know from talking to local family coach operators such as J&C Coaches in Newton Aycliffe that the environment for coach operators is particularly challenging. While the postponement of the implementation of the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations for school transport provides some relief, it is still a sword hanging over coach operators and their future viability. If a longer-term viable option is not signposted, this could result in their withdrawing from the market, reducing capacity when precisely the opposite is needed. The current approach drives excessive costs for coach operators and, by extension, local authorities. While I endorse the need for accessible transport, can the Department work to make this more fit for purpose for school transport?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue and highlighting the concerns of his constituents and coach operators in his constituency. Dealing with the issue of children getting to school as schools fully return has been important. That is why the Department for Transport made over £10 million available to build capacity in local authorities, and that is why we made over £40 million available to local authorities to provide extra transport. The issue that he raises has been a concern for many MPs, and as a Member of Parliament in Staffordshire, I know that it is one we have highlighted with the Department for Transport. The DFT’s decision to delay the implementation of these regulations was a positive move, but I will ask a Minister in that Department to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this further.