Primary schools are to be prioritised for reopening, Boris Johnson has indicated, with reports suggesting that groups of pupils could return to classrooms as early as 1 June as the coronavirus lockdown is eased.
“One of the things we want to do as fast as we can is get certainly primary schools back,” the prime minister told the Sun on Sunday. “It’s not going to be easy but that’s where we want to go. It’s about working out a way to do it.”
The head of Ofsted also weighed in, saying there was a great deal of logic in targeting the youngest children first. Amanda Spielman said younger pupils needed routine, and, from parents’ perspectives, were those who needed the most care and oversight.
She told Sky: “If you look at the interests of children, it’s very clear that their interests are best served, in the vast majority of cases, by being back at school as soon as possible.”
Mark Drakeford, the first minister of Wales, said schools there could reopen at the beginning of next month. “Our advice from the trade unions and from the local education authorities is that you will need three weeks as a minimum from the point that we decide to do that, to when schools can reopen, so we are talking about the beginning of June,” he told the BBC.
The Department for Education maintains that no date has yet been set for schools in England to reopen, and teaching unions said the government should reveal its assessments of the impact on public health of reopening schools, including the extra fatalities anticipated.
In the week to come, Johnson is expected to outline a plan for a national lifting of restrictions, with the reopening of schools regarded as important to release more parents back into the workforce.
The government has been in talks with teaching unions over how and when to restart classroom learning. Schools have been using distance learning at home for pupils since March, with the children of key workers and those classified as vulnerable or with special needs still able to attend in person.
But Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, which represents most primary school teachers, said a June reopening date was premature until the government detailed how it would protect children, teachers and families.
He said: “While we all want to see a return to some sort of normality, the NEU believes it’s really premature to talk about a June return date. Instead, the government should be providing evidence about how this can be safe, how many more fatalities would we expect to see amongst school staff and parents and how these can be prevented or minimised.”
The NEU said it had set five tests to be met before schools could reopen, including a sustained lower level of Covid-19 cases nationally, access to regular testing for children and staff, and a national plan for achieving physical distancing.
Courtney said: “We have also written to the prime minister outlining very sensible requests for peer-reviewed evidence but we have no reply. If the government proceeds in this sort of way it is will fail to get the confidence of heads, staff and parents.”
Other reports claimed the government had set 1 June as the target for primary schools in England to welcome pupils back. Pupils in year 10 and year 12 of secondary school would also be expected to start at about the same time.
The Sunday Telegraph said Johnson would announce next Sunday that primary schools would reopen as early as 1 June, quoting Whitehall sources who added that reopening could be delayed as the result of new data from the Office for National Statistics in the coming week.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has said that pupils will return to school in a phased manner when it is safe to do so. A Department for Education source repeated that no date had been set for reopening, which would be done in full consultation with schools and with several weeks’ notice. Williamson has also asked a subcommittee of the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) to look at the scientific advice on reopening.
Several countries, such as Austria and Denmark, have moved to partially reopen schools as coronavirus fears have receded. But in some of the worst-hit areas, including Italy and parts of the US, schools will remain shut until the end of summer.
Any decision by Johnson and Williamson would only apply directly to schools in England. Education policy and funding is devolved to national administrations, meaning schools in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland can remain closed or reopen independent of those in England.
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