When will UK schools reopen – and how will they keep children safe?

In England at least, the government wants primary schools to exit coronavirus lockdown from 1 June

In just over a fortnight, the first pupils in England should start returning to school for the first time since 20 March. But a lot remains unclear.

Who will be be returning first and when?

According to a plan for English schools unveiled by Boris Johnson, from 1 June primary schools will bring back reception, year one and year six classes, as well as nursery children, if they have them. Also, nurseries and other early years providers would open. In secondary schools, year 10 and 12 pupils would have some face-to-face time with teachers, although not a proper return. Schools have not been closed in the interim – some teachers have been looking after children of key workers and vulnerable students.

What is the next planned step?

The “hope” outlined in the Department for Education plan is that all other primary children in England would return to school before the summer break, for a month if possible. Secondary school pupils will not return before September.

Will all this happen?

It is by no means certain. The government plan stresses that 1 June is still an interim date, and depends on the progress of reducing coronavirus infections. But even if ministers want to push ahead with this date, they will need to convince teachers and unions that the reopening can be done safely. Unions have warned it might not be possible without a robust “track and test” regime in place, and say teachers could refuse to return if they are not satisfied.

How would schools reopen safely?

This is the big issue. The Westminster government’s guidance on reopening schools notes that full social distancing is in effect impossible inside schools, in terms of maintaining constant 2-metre distances. The lengthy recommendations stress the importance of ensuring people with Covid-19 symptoms are kept out of school, regular hand-washing and surface cleaning, and maintaining distance as much as possible, for example with different classroom layouts and staggered break times. Unions say there are worries about the extent of testing, and the need for personal protective equipment.

Has it been done elsewhere?

Denmark and Germany are among countries to have reopened primary schools using techniques such as dividing classes into distinct groups, and avoiding bottlenecks at arrival and departure times. But if it does happen in the UK, it might be a case of the government trying it out and seeing if there is a rise in school-based Covid cases.

Can children transmit coronavirus?

While most healthy children tend to experience mild or no symptoms if they catch the virus, the evidence is unclear as to how likely they are to pass it to other people even if they are asymptomatic. More evidence is likely to emerge when schools have been open for longer.

Does my child have to attend?

No. The Department for Education has stressed that there will be no penalties for parents who keep children off even when schools are reopened this academic year. The official advice is also that children who might be particularly vulnerable to coronavirus should not return.

What has been the media and political reaction to the situation?

The government has so far been fairly measured in its response to union and teacher concerns, trying to see if these can be assuaged. The same cannot be said for all parts of the media, with Friday’s Daily Mail front page claiming that while teachers were keen to return to schools, “militant unions are standing in their way”.

Is the situation the same in the rest of the UK?

No. Education is a devolved matter, and the other three nations are taking a more cautious approach. The governments in Scotland and Wales have both ruled out a return on 1 June, with the most likely date for reopening appearing to be the new school year. The same seems likely to happen in Northern Ireland.


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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