Leading headteachers have warned schools must remain open during a second lockdown to avoid “irreparable damage” to children’s education and mental health.
The National Education Union (NEU) said more than 150,000 teachers and support staff want schools to close for everyone but the children of key workers and the most vulnerable.
But London school leaders said moving lessons online, as they were over the summer shutdown, would be particularly damaging to disadvantaged young people.
The warning follows Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield saying it would be a “disaster” if they were to close when the country goes into a second lockdown on Thursday.
Andy Buck, former head of Jo Richardson Community School in Dagenham and CEO of Leadership Matters, said teachers must be supported throughout the lockdown to keep schools open and students learning the curriculum.
“All the heads I am in contact with understand the importance of schools remaining open,” he said.
“Pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, cannot afford to get even further behind with their education and working from home is absolutely no substitute. But let us be under no illusion, this it is going to be hard for heads to manage, especially when some teachers and support staff are unable to go to work through no fault of their own.”
Sir Daniel Moynihan the CEO of the Harris Federation, which is London’s biggest academy chain running 50 schools, said: “Young people have already lost a large chunk of their education and disadvantaged children have been damaged most.
“Aside from the loss of education, there is rising evidence of mental health and child protection issues under lockdown. The closure of schools would inflict more, probably irreparable damage to those who can afford it least.”
The unions, backed by northern leaders including Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, have warned that no closures will lead to further spread of Covid-19.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of NEU, said “it is clear from data that schools are an engine for virus transmission”.
But executive Headmaster of the Fulham Boys School Alun Ebenezer said: “It’s vital to stay open. And with fewer people on public transport and out generally schools will inevitably be safer.
“It’s a union’s job to fight for staff but it would be useful if they realised how hard the lockdown in the summer was. We have lots of young people living in social deprivation. Locking them away for four weeks is not in their best interests. We can’t have a lost generation.”
Leader of the Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer also clashed with education unions by saying schools must stay open during the next lockdown for the good of the children.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show: “I want schools open, I think the harm to children from being out of school is too high – we have to manage the risk but it is a priority to keep schools open.”
Chair of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon said Ms Longfield was “absolutely right” that children needed to keep learning.
He tweeted: “School closures would significantly impact on pupils’ education and life chances. It is the right decision to keep schools open.”
Minister for School Standards Nick Gibb said: “It is vital that we keep our schools open to protect the education and wellbeing of this country’s children.
“We could not do this without the hard work and dedication of teachers and school staff, for which I want to say a huge thank you.”