Schools are being reassured that if they need additional public health support to help them with reopening they will receive it.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council leader Abi Brown has written to all headteachers across the city to thank them for their hard work during the coronavirus lockdown and to offer extended support if required. The authority is also writing to parents to confirm that they will not be put under pressure to send their children to school at this time, and that they will not face fines if they keep their children at home.

The reassurances come as schools across the city prepare for a phased reopening for pre-school, reception, year one and year six children, and an increase in face-to-face contact for years 10 and 12, from 1 June.

A total of 81 of the 92 schools across the city have been open during the lockdown measures which have been in place since March. The eleven schools that have temporarily closed are part of academy trusts, with children able to attend other schools in the trust that are closest to their homes. Around 1,000 children from keyworker families and with vulnerabilities have been in school during the lockdown, some 2.5 per cent of the 44,700 school population. This is higher than the national average of 2.3 per cent of children attending schools.

Councillor Brown said: “Children remain our key priority, and I know that parents have a tough job balancing all the demands facing them – I can empathise as a full-time working mum with two children. We have been contacted in recent weeks by a number of concerned teachers and parents about the coronavirus infection rates in Stoke-on-Trent. The infection has reached a peaked in our city at a later stage than it did in other parts of the country such as London and Birmingham, but we are now showing a clear downward trend. Our latest public health advice is clear – provided we all follow government guidance, maintain social distancing where possible and wash our hands often, the prevailing rate of infection or incidence of new cases should not be a barrier to children returning to school on 1 June. We are continuing to track very carefully the progress of the infection.

“Each of our schools has an accountable body with the final legal responsibility to decide whether the school is ready to open. Every school is different, and the numbers of children they can safely accommodate will vary so we are working with schools on their own plans and risk assessments. We know that preparing for a broader reopening takes time and planning, hence our support for schools to reopen when the time is right for them.

“We also continue to liaise closely with the Department for Education, trade unions and other agencies on a range of areas including personal protective equipment, logistics and staffing. We continue to provide additional public health expertise to schools if required and have made an extended offer to schools to contact us if they need more support.

“We are clear that, in line with government guidance, parents should not be put under pressure to send their children to school at this time. No fines will be applied to parents who decide to not send their children to school. However, we are encouraging parents to consider now how their children may start their return to school. We will continue to monitor the situation.”

Meanwhile the council launched a £2.8m grant scheme on 28 May to support more small businesses through the coronavirus restrictions. The funding, through the government’s Local Authority Discretionary Grants Fund, is an additional pot of money to help those businesses that were not eligible for the small Business Grant Fund or the Retail, Leisure and Hospitality Fund which launched on 31 March.

Businesses can apply for the new funding stream until 5pm on Wednesday 3 June, and grants of up to £10,000 are available, at the discretion of the council.

The funding is primarily aimed at supporting: Small and micro businesses, Businesses with relatively high ongoing fixed property-related costs, Businesses which can demonstrate that they have suffered a significant fall in income due to the Covid-19 crisis, Businesses which occupy property, or part of a property, with a rateable value or annual rent or annual mortgage payments below £51,000.
Businesses must have been trading on 11 March 2020 to be eligible and priority will be given to the following types of businesses: Small businesses in shared offices or other flexible workspaces, such as those with units in industrial parks, science parks and incubators which do not have their own business rates assessment, Market traders with fixed building costs, such as rent, who do not have their own business rates assessment, Bed and breakfasts which pay council tax instead of business rates, Charity properties in receipt of charitable business rates relief which would otherwise have been eligible for small business rates relief or rural rate relief.
A full list of eligibility criteria and an application form is available via: www.stoke.gov.uk/discretionarygrant. Businesses are advised that while the fund is open for all businesses to apply, the assessment process will consider the priority businesses outlined above before others are considered.

Councillor Brown said: “We want to support as many small businesses as possible to help them through this most difficult of times. The government issued final guidance on how this scheme will run on 22 May, and we have moved as quickly as possible to make the funding available and to give businesses the opportunity to apply. This is another lifeline to support potentially hundreds of more businesses and traders and we encourage businesses to now come forward to apply.”

The authority has already administered £48.6m to 4,272 businesses from the original small business grants allocation. There are around 550 businesses which may be eligible for this funding that have not applied for it. Council teams are continuing to work to contact these businesses to identify if they are eligible and to encourage them to complete the form. Details of the funding are available at: www.stoke.gov.uk/businessratesgrants

For more information and advice on coronavirus (Covid-19) please visit Public Health England: https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2020/01/23/wuhan-novel-coronavirus-what-you-need-to-know/ and the NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/

All residents are reminded about the critical importance of regular handwashing with soap and hot water for 20 seconds. The significance of this action cannot be underestimated.

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