Will UK schools fully reopen before September and can parents refuse to send their children?

Getty Images/iStockphoto In May, Boris Johnson delivered an address outlining the gradual reopening of schools

Getty Images/iStockphoto
Getty Images/iStockphoto

In May, Boris Johnson delivered an address outlining the gradual reopening of schools for an increased number of students in England, as part of a wider easing of lockdown restrictions.

On Monday 1 June, primary schools in England were reopened to more pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.

The government emphasised that schools would only be reopened as long as the spread of Covid-19 remains “on the downward slope”.

But certain individuals and organisations criticised the government’s decision to reopen schools at this stage of the coronavirus pandemic, with the headteachers’ union describing the move as “not realistic”.

“These proposals, as they currently stand, are likely to prove impractical and unworkable in most schools,” the National Association of Head Teachers said.

The Trades Union Congress said that “there should no increase in pupil numbers until the full roll-out of the government’s ‘test, trace and isolate policy’ with testing targets consistently met over a number of weeks and case numbers falling consistently”.

On Monday 8 June, a week after schools were reopened for more pupils in England, health secretary Matt Hancock hinted that schools may not be fully reopened in September, despite current plans.

Furthermore, it was reported that plans for all primary school children to return to school England before the summer holidays are set to be abandoned by the government due to concerns over social distancing.

Here is everything you need to know about the reopening of schools.

Will schools fully reopen before September?

When schools across the nation were closed on Friday 20 March, only vulnerable children and children of critical workers were allowed to remain in school.

However, from Monday 1 June, primary schools in England were able to welcome back students “in key transition years”.

This included students who are currently in nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.

The Department of Education stated that secondary schools, sixth forms and colleges “will also work towards the possibility of providing some face-to-face contact with young people in Year 10 and Year 12 to help them prepare for exams next year”.

The government stressed in its guidance that “progress will be monitored every day” regarding whether it is safe for students to return to school.

“If the virus stays on the downward slope, and the R remains below 1, then – and only then – will it become safe to go further, move to the second step and reopen schools,” it says.

During the daily press conference on Monday 8 June, Hancock stated that the government’s “current working plan” is that secondary schools “won’t open until September at the earliest”.

“I very much hope that they can because the impact on children’s education is so significant,” he said.

“But what we have to do – not only in schools, but right across the board – is work out how we can get the other things that matter going.”

A source at the Department for Education informed The Daily Telegraph that the aim is to have “business as usual in all schools come September”, admitting that this may not be guaranteed due to uncertainty surrounding the Covid-19 outbreak.

On Tuesday 8 June, the Department for Education said it was still the “ambition” for primary schools to fully reopen before July, adding that secretary of state for education Gavin Williamson will provide a further update on the plans later in the day.

The BBC reported that Mr Williamson will tell MPs in a Commons statement that primary schools will no longer have to prepare for a full return of children before the summer holidays due to social distancing measures.

What about in other parts of the UK?

On Thursday 21 May, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that all schools in the country would be reopened from 11 August.

Sturgeon told MSPs that children will return to a “blended model of part-time in-school and part-time at-home learning”.

The first minister added that teachers and other members of staff at schools will return in June to prepare their classrooms for the new term after the summer break.

During June and over the course of summer, an increased number of children in Scotland will have access to critical childcare, Sturgeon said.

The Scottish government will also provide “transition support for children going into primary 1 or moving from primary 7 to secondary school”.

“To reflect the fact that children will still be doing part of their learning at home, we are going to invest a further £30 million to provide laptops for disadvantaged children and young people to study online,” the first minister stated

On Wednesday 10 June, the Welsh government published its guidance on how schools across the country should reopen to pupils from Monday 29 June.

During the four-week term before the summer holidays, students should expect to spend around three days at school.

Furthermore, only one-third of students will be permitted to attend school at any one time.

“We know that such a long period away from school, friends and the classroom will have a detrimental impact on the well-being and learning of many young people,” said education minister Kirsty Williams.

“That is why we have taken the decision that the majority of learners will be able to check in, catch up, and prepare for the summer and September.”

Peter Weir, education minister for Northern Ireland, recently said the aim was for schools to be reopened in the country from 24 August.

On Thursday 18 June, first minister Arlene Foster told BBC NI’s The View that the hope ”is to get everybody back to school in September, I think that’s what parents want”.

Which other countries have already reopened schools?

Earlier this month, one-third of French schoolchildren return to school following an easing of lockdown restrictions.

According to a report published a week later, the reopening of the academic institutions resulted in approximately 70 cases of coronavirus.

Speaking to French radio channel RTL, education minister Jean-Michael Blanquer warned that the return of students was putting some children at risk of contamination.

He added that the affected schools were being closed with immediate effect.

On Wednesday 20 May, students in South Korea began returning to school.

Hundreds of thousands of high school seniors entered their schools after having their temperatures checked and rubbing their hands with sanitiser.

Students and teachers in South Korea are required to wear masks in classrooms, while some schools have installed plastic partitions on individual students’ desks.

Despite the reopening of schools, pupils at some academic institutions near Seoul were told to return home quickly after two students were discovered to be Covid-19-positive.

Other countries to have reopened schools include China, Germany and Denmark.

Can parents in England refuse to send their children to schools when they reopen?

Following the prime minister’s speech on Sunday 10 May, the government said that it is “examining more stringent enforcement measures for non-compliance” with social distancing measures, “as it has seen in many other countries”.

In the guidance published the following day, it says that the government “will impose higher fines to reflect the increased risk to others of breaking the rules as people are returning to work and school. The government will seek to make clearer to the public what is and is not allowed”.

However, the government has also made it clear that parents and guardians will not be penalised should they decide not to send their children back to school when academic institutions are reopened on a larger scale.

“Eligible children – including priority groups – are strongly encouraged to attend their education setting, unless they are self-isolating or they are clinically vulnerable,” the Department for Education states.

“Families should notify their nursery, school or college as normal if their child is unable to attend so that staff can explore the reason with them and address barriers together.”

The department added: “Parents will not be fined for non-attendance at this time.

“Parents will not be penalised if their child does not attend school. We expect schools and other relevant partners to work with and support the relevant families and pupils to return to school.”

However, this could change from September, the education secretary has warned.

On Monday 29 June, Gavin Williamson said it will be “compulsory” for children to return to school at the start of the academic year, unless there is a “good reason” that they cannot.

If children are not present in school from September, their families may face financial penalties, Mr Williams stated.

However, while this may be the case, headteachers and teachers’ unions have been urged against rushing to reintroduce fines, as they will need to “build confidence” with students and their families.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said that the organisation doesn’t believe fining parents if their children do not attend school in September is the “right approach”.

“There will be many frightened and anxious parents out there, and this is very much a case of building confidence that it is safe to return, rather than forcing the issue through the use of fines,” he said.

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, added that ministers should “think carefully before issuing warnings to parents”, considering the government “has not yet explained how it plans to reopen schools safely in September”.

“It is important that the safe return of children to schools is encouraged and that parental concerns are considered seriously and responded to appropriately,” he said.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), stated that it is important to work with families “in a constructive and supportive way”.

Mr Williamson also stated that when schools reopen in September, the academic institutions will be unlikely to follow the same social distancing measures as businesses such as pubs, with classes becoming “bubbles” separated from other students.

Can children pass coronavirus onto adults?

It is currently understood that while children can contract the coronavirus, they are less likely than adults to become seriously ill.

“The evidence to date [as of 24 April 2020] suggests that although children do develop Covid-19, very few children develop severe symptoms, even if they have an underlying health condition,” Great Ormond Street Hospital states.

In Switzerland, authorities said on 29 April that it was safe for children under 10 to hug their grandparents because young children “do not transmit” the virus.

However, German virologist Christian Drosten conducted a study, published a day after the Swiss announcement, which found children “may be just as infectious as adults”.

In a report published on the paediatric blog Don’t Forget the Bubbles in April, in partnership with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), an analysis was conducted of existing research into the effects of Covid-19 on children.

The research, coordinated by Dr Alasdair Munro, a clinical research fellow in paediatric infectious diseases, outlined that a joint commission by China and the World Health Organisation (WHO) “could not recall episodes during contact tracing where transmission occurred from a child to an adult”.

However, the report added this gives no certainty about children’s involvement in transmission of the virus.

“The role of children in transmission is unclear, but it seems likely they do not play a significant role,” it stated.

Speaking to The Independent, Dr Munro said that studies have shown that children “have a lower attack rate than adults”, that children “are less likely to acquire it from a household contact than adults are” and that children “are less often the people bringing it into the household than adults”.

However, Dr Munro also noted that the research on this topic – around five studies – is limited.

The clinical research fellow added that evidence has emerged that children “can be asymptomatic”, which has also been seen among adults.

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, says it is important to “err on the side of caution” when discussing whether the coronavirus can be transmitted to adults by children.

“Given that not many pieces of work have been done on it, it’s very difficult to judge,” Dr Clarke told The Independent. “There’s not a mountain of evidence on both sides. The fact is we know very little about this, precious little.”

The professor stressed that “research is ongoing” on the subject.

Professor Russell Viner, president of the RCPCH, said that while it is believed that “children probably transmit Covid-19 less than adults”, it is essential to be “absolutely sure” and gather “a lot more data on that” before easing lockdown and social distancing measures.

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