Council advises schools to close

Councillor Clare Coghill
Waltham Forest council leader Clare Coghill

Report by James Cracknell and Victoria Munro, Local Democracy Reporter

Waltham Forest schools have been advised to close their doors to almost all children as the borough faces “very serious” Covid-19 rates.

Council leader Clare Coghill said on Monday that the council was “recommending” schools close except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. The Christmas holiday break starts next week and online lessons will continue for the rest of this week.

However, on Tuesday, it emerged that the government had sent correspondence to individual schools warning them to stay open or face legal action. Greenwich Council, which had offered similar advice to its schools, retracted the advice to avoid any legal dispute – but Cllr Coghill issued a statement last night standing firm on her earlier decision.

Cllr Coghill said: “We have been made aware that the minister for school standards, Nick Gibb MP, has written to schools across Waltham Forest threatening legal action if they do not stay open or reopen. We would note that as of the issuing of this statement we have received no correspondence from the minister in relation to that advice.

“On Monday, Waltham Forest [Council] met with headteachers, teaching unions and the regional schools commissioner to discuss appropriate action in response to both the very high rates of Covid-19 in the borough coupled with the government’s relaxation of restrictions for the Christmas period.

“In discussion with the headteachers best placed to understand the individual needs of their schools, we recommended to schools that they move to online learning, except for key worker and vulnerable children. Following these discussions some schools have decided to move to online classes for the majority of pupils and others have not.

“We are confident that schools in Waltham Forest have made their decisions on the basis of their own individual risk assessment and with pupil safety at their heart.

“It is disappointing that, during a year when teachers, pupils and parents have made extraordinary efforts to ensure education continues through a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, the minister has chosen to write to our schools threatening them with potential legal action.”

The borough initially fared well during the second wave of Covid-19 in November, but rates began spiking in December and Waltham Forest now has a rate of infection of more than 400 per 100,000 people and around 200 new people testing positive each day. The borough has ranked among the top ten areas in the UK for infection rates since the first week of the month.

Schools can choose not to follow the advice from the council. One parent and teacher, Victoria Jech, confirmed Leytonstone School had made the decision to close. She tweeted: “I am grateful that Leytonstone School has made this decision. 

“It places the wellbeing of all at the centre for both students, staff and our community and the online provision for my daughter in year ten has been excellent.”

On Monday, deputy leader Clyde Loakes and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan visited Waltham Forest College to see students receive new ‘lateral flow’ tests that are being rolled out in high-risk areas. The new tests are done in less than an hour and do not require processing in a lab.