We’ll stay open, academies say as heads learn about virus closures from Twitter

Google Streetview screenshot of Greenwich Free School
Ark Greenwich Free School will not be closing early for Christmas (image: Google)

Updated story: Two academy schools will not be following Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe’s call for all the borough’s schools to close in light of increasing coronavirus cases among teenagers.

Thorpe announced on social media on Sunday afternoon that he would be asking all the borough’s schools to switch to online learning from Tuesday, except for vulnerable children and those of key workers. But the news took schools by surprise, with some making clear to parents that the first they knew was through social media.

Since Thorpe became council leader two years ago many key council announcements have been made through his personal Twitter account rather than through the town hall’s own channels. Greenwich is also the only one of London’s 32 boroughs to tell its schools to close – with fellow Labour councils Redbridge, Newham and Tower Hamlets, all of which have worse case rates, keeping their schools open.

The confusion was compounded by several outlets wrongly reporting that all Greenwich schools were closing – including the Sutton-based News Shopper, which published its story as late as 10pm on Sunday – when academies do not have to follow Thorpe’s instructions.

Rhys Spiers, the head of Ark Greenwich Free School in Shooters Hill, told parent that it would be business as usual.

“It has been brought to my attention that information is circulating on social media that Councillor Danny Thorpe has asked all schools in the Royal Borough of Greenwich to close from Monday evening,” he wrote.

“I will of course continue to monitor the situation closely, however until I am instructed to close by the Government Department for Education and/or Public Health England, our school will remain open to all scholars as normal.”

In Eltham, Harris Greenwich also indicated that it would stay open for many of its year groups. “We will be open on Monday 14th December to Y7, 10, 11, 12 and 13. Covid cases permitting, we intend to remain open to those year groups until 3.35pm on Thursday 17th December. Hope this clears up some of the confusion this evening,” it tweeted on Sunday evening.

News Shopper
Misleading: The US-owned, Sutton-based News Shopper was among the outlets wrongly reporting that all schools were to close

Parents at other schools were told that Thorpe had told Twitter before headteachers.

It was “regrettable that the letter was shared via social media before being shared with school leaders”, parents at one primary school were told; another also said it had not been informed and would be in contact with parents in the morning. 853 is not naming the schools because of the risk of repercussions.

A academy secondary school pointedly started its email: “You may be aware of a flurry of communication on social media and other online vehicles…”

A primary school tried to put a brave face on the upheavals: “Sincere apologies for the short notice but 2020 is a year when we all need to adapt quickly when scientific advice is updated. I suspect that 2021 will be much the same as well.”

The Christmas meal at one primary is also off: “We can’t reorganise the lunch at such short notice (I’ve tried) but please wear your Christmas jumper to school tomorrow. It’s our chance to feel festive.”

Other parents heard nothing at all from their schools.

Thorpe’s tweet announcing his request for closures came at 3.47pm on Sunday – but a fuller statement, via the town hall, was not made public for more than another hour. It asked headteachers to send messages to parents later in the evening.

Onlookers from outside the borough watched with bemusement. Sheila Mouna, the head of St Anne’s primary in Whitechapel, tweeted: “I wouldn’t fancy being a head teacher in Greenwich having this announcement sprung on you on a Sunday evening.”

The move to break ranks with London’s 31 other boroughs could set up a confrontation with the government. Yesterday The Observer reported that a school in Ware, Hertfordshire, had been threatened with legal action to force it to open instead of offering remote learning.

On Monday morning, London mayor Sadiq Khan called for secondary schools to close early, but Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he was “reluctant” to close schools.

“I do understand the concern across London,” he told LBC radio. I’m really worried by what’s happening across London because we are only 12 days out of lockdown, London is in Tier 2 and cases are rising very fast.

“I’m worried about closing schools early, but I can see that council leaders are in a difficult position.”

Asked what he would say to Khan, Starmer said: “I would say talk to the health secretary about what we can do to keep schools open this week. Try to keep them open this week.”

Nigel Fletcher, the leader of Greenwich’s Conservative opposition, said last night: “This is a big step by the council, and I’m sure it wouldn’t have been made without serious consideration of the consequences.

“Parents and schools will understandably be very concerned, and it is far from ideal for them – and us – to hear about it on Twitter on a Sunday night. We have already heard from many people with questions about why Greenwich has moved ahead of any London-wide measures or guidance from government.

“I have spoken to the leader of the council and asked him to provide urgent briefing to councillors on the many questions we are now facing. It appears some schools will not be closing, there is uncertainty about the position with regard to childcare and nursery settings, and there are concerns about what the criteria will be for reopening.

“We have always tried to back the council leadership in the tough job they face in responding to this crisis, and will continue to engage constructively, but parents and schools need clear information and a properly co-ordinated response by local and national government.”

In the seven days to 8 December, there were 225 cases of coronavirus per 100,000 people in Greenwich, according to Public Health England figures released on Sunday afternoon. The rate in Lewisham is 168 per 100,000, and 292 per 100,000 in Bexley, where schools are to be given rapid testing kits.

1pm update: Islington Council has also advised schools to close. Its announcement was made on its website and social media at noon, rather than on council leader Richard Watts’ Twitter account.

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