The government has launched legal action against a London council over plans to close schools, using emergency coronavirus legislation for the first time to ensure face-to-face teaching continues until the end of term.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, issued a “temporary continuity direction” to Greenwich council, demanding the immediate withdrawal of a letter issued to headteachers over the weekend advising them to close schools early and switch to remote learning amid rising Covid infection rates in the capital.
Although the government has previously threatened legal action, this latest move signals its determination to keep schools open in the run-up to the Christmas holidays and beyond. If Greenwich fails to comply the Department for Education can seek a court injunction.
Greenwich and Islington councils had advised schools to close, except to the children of key workers and those classed as vulnerable, and switch to online lessons in the last few days of term to help slow the spread of the virus. The government has not yet launched legal action against Islington.
Williamson said: “It is simply not in children’s best interests for schools in Greenwich, Islington or elsewhere to close their doors. I have always been clear that using legal powers is a last resort but continuity of education is a national priority.
“That’s why I won’t hesitate to do what is right for young people and have issued a direction to Greenwich council setting out that they must withdraw the letter issued to headteachers on Sunday.”
Greenwich council’s leader, Danny Thorpe, said the authority was seeking legal advice but the government’s intervention had come too late to change arrangements for Tuesday, when some schools in the borough will switch to online, while others had already decided to remain open.
On Monday the schools minister, Nick Gibb, wrote to every school in the two boroughs reminding them of their duty to remain open and instructing them to tell parents that children should attend unless asked to self-isolate.
The warnings came as dozens of schools in London and Essex closed or prepared to close to almost all pupils and move to remote learning. The biggest spreader of the virus in the capital is education settings, particularly among pupils aged 10 to 19, data has showed.
Parents in the London borough of Waltham Forest were among the latest to receive letters about closures from Tuesday. “Each individual school will make their own decision and will contact parents to make arrangements for children’s continued learning this week,” said Clare Coghill, the leader of Waltham Forest council.
“I believe that this emergency action is needed at this time because of the high level of infection rates alongside the time of the year where we know that people are planning to get together under the government’s Christmas guidelines. This makes the risk of infection particularly high.”
In the Covid hotspot of Basildon, Essex, eight out of the nine secondary schools have moved to remote education, as have 17 out of 48 primary schools.
Meanwhile, the government is expected to announce plans for serial testing of pupils and staff in schools in England from the new year to help limit the spread of the disease and reduce the numbers being sent home to self-isolate.
Under the plans, teachers will be given weekly tests to screen for the virus. Where pupils and staff have been in close contact with a positive case, they will be offered daily testing over seven days to let them remain in school while they test negative, sources told the Guardian.