The Prime Minister has set out a COVID-19 recovery plan. As part of the second step of this plan, there will be a phased return for schools and early years settings. No earlier than the 1st of June, and only if the science says it is safe to do so, will children be able to return to early years settings, and Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 classes will be able to return to school in smaller sizes. 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.
As a parent, and the daughter of teachers, I understand the anxieties teachers, parents and pupils will be experiencing about the pandemic. I am very grateful to all the teachers and educational providers who have continued to work during this difficult time to support vulnerable children and to enable critical workers to go to work. I am very aware of the importance education plays in the development of a child. It is the most significant factor in improving social mobility and provides immeasurable social and emotional benefits.
The Department of Education is engaging closely with schools and early years providers to develop further detail and guidance on how schools should facilitate this. It is vital that educational professionals, schools, trade unions and all interested parties engage with the Government to enable us to proceed, once it is safe, with getting children back into education.
I will continue to liaise with the Department of Education to raise concerns of local schools and educational providers, but below I tackle some of the questions I’ve received.
Why were educational settings closed on 23rd March?
The closure was to reduce social interaction between households in order to reduce transmission of the virus.
As Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty explained at the time, schools were “not dangerous” for children during the pandemic, but the decision to close them would slow the rise of infections by reducing interactions.
The priority in responding to Covid-19 is the safety of the public and to ensure the NHS isn’t overwhelmed, and for that reason schools were closed.
Most schools and childcare settings have remained open throughout the pandemic to priority groups and the children of critical workers. As we’re all aware critical workers and all those unable to work from home have continued to go to work, as have so many teachers and nursery staff.
The peak of the virus occurred on the 8th of April – about two weeks after school closures and the infection rate has reduced considerably since that date. The NHS was not overwhelmed during the peak, and the number of coronavirus cases continues to fall.
The Government, therefore, anticipates, with further progress, that we may be able to welcome back more children to early years, schools and further education settings from the week commencing the 1st of June.
Will educational settings open no-matter-what on 1st June?
No. The Government has set out a road-map to how we move out of the lockdown across many settings, but all of the decisions are subject to the science.
What is considered possible or scheduled one day, may not be the next. This is a dynamic situation and the Government will listen and respond to the science.
If it is not safe, educational settings will not re-open. If the data says they should close again once opened, that will happen.
Why do scientists and the Government assess it’s safe to return to schools and nurseries from 1st June?
As a result of the enormous efforts everyone has made to adhere to strict social distancing measures, the transmission rate of coronavirus (COVID-19) has decreased and the R rate is down.
The safety of pupils and staff is of paramount importance. I know the increased time our children are away from school is a primary concern for teachers and parents. We want to get all children and young people back into education as soon as scientific advice allows because it is the best place for them to learn. We also know how important it is for their mental wellbeing to have social interactions with their peers, carers and teachers.
Re-opening schools from June 1st for some year groups is part of a provisional plan that depends solely on the best scientific evidence and medical advice telling us it is safe to do so. We are monitoring the data very carefully and if there is an increase in cases and number of infections, of course, that decision will be reviewed and not go ahead if it is not safe at the time. So far the science and progress on test, track and chance and further measures show we are ready to re-open schools, but that could change overnight if the science tells us so.
We know from the data that COVID-19 presents an extremely low risk to children.
If we look at the deaths that have so sadly occurred as a result of COVID-19, we have seen over 30,000 deaths associated with the virus in this country, but only 2 in children under 15. Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter at the University of Cambridge estimates that the mortality rate for children having contracted coronavirus is one in 5.3 million. Coronavirus is far more dangerous to those with underlying health conditions and the elderly. The evidence suggests that many children show no symptoms or have very mild symptoms and are not significantly affected by the virus.
We have not found a vaccine yet and while studies are looking promising, there are no guarantees. The only disease that has been completely eradicated from the human population is smallpox and there are lots of other infectious diseases that we have brought under control but do still exist. So, if we are living with COVID-19 forever, if we stay alert, manage to control it, test and track and trace it, we give ourselves the best opportunity to return to some form of normality. It can’t be the case that we wait forever to bring our children back to school because the cost to our children will be phenomenal.
The Government advice seeks to support staff working in schools, colleges and childcare settings, to deliver this approach in the safest way possible, focusing on measures they can put in place to help limit the risk of the virus spreading within education and childcare settings.
Why do schools need to re-open?
Medical and scientific advice (the SAGE group) says it is the right time to start bringing schools back in a phased and controlled manner. There is an almost complete loss of formal school education for children while at home, no matter how hard parents work to support their children’s education, or how much support the Government has put in place.
The Sutton Trust in a survey of teachers in April 2020 suggested that disadvantaged pupils are at most risk of a widening attainment gap. Our teachers are working in creative ways to support parents and pupils in-home learning, and they recognise, particularly the poorest children, are most likely to be most impacted by time away from the classroom.
The report suggested in the most deprived schools, almost a third of teachers (32%) are getting less than a quarter of the work they set returned. Furthermore, half of all teachers in state schools say the standard of work teachers are receiving is lower than classroom standard.
Teachers recognise the implications of school closures have on learning. The research brief suggested half of the teachers cited some form of staggered return to school, or summer ‘catch up classes’ for disadvantaged pupils to prevent pupils from the falling behind.
According to a study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, 700,000 pupils are getting no lessons at all and as we know, missing a day or a week of school can be detrimental. Many other pupils are getting small amounts of education that are inadequate; let me be clear, there is no doubt that teachers are doing their absolute best and are providing fantastic lessons for pupils during the lockdown, but this is not an equal substitute for most children.
The experts say there is virtually no risk to the children or teachers, that is the experience of countries who have kept their schools open. The World Health Organisation Chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan has said children are at “very low risk” of getting ill from the disease and children are “less capable” of spreading the disease. England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries has backed the reopening.
Are there many people calling for educational settings to remain closed?
Most schools and childcare settings have remained open throughout the pandemic to priority groups and the children of critical workers.
I am disappointed by the decision of some organisations to call for educational professionals not to engage with Government planning. The planning is to ensure that educational settings re-open based on the science available, and with direct input from teachers and educational providers.
The British Medical Association is now supportive of re-opening schools. The union has acknowledged that there is ‘growing evidence that the risk to individual children from Covid-19 is extremely small’.
The National Association of Head Teachers and The Association of School and College Leaders have both backed the re-opening of schools.
In addition, the Government’s decision, guided by scientific guidance, has the support of former Labour Education Secretaries Lord David Blunkett, Alan Johnson, and Charles Clarke as well as former Conservative Education Secretaries Nicky Morgan, Damian Hinds and Justine Greening.
There remain organisations that are cautious about, or do not support, re-opening of schools, and I understand this is based on a desire to protect educational staff and pupils. As the Government has said, we continue to review the scientific data and will only open educational settings if it is safe, and I urge all parties to engage with planning to ensure that planning for the re-opening of schools can be done as effectively as possible.
How will social distancing be enforced at school?
School life post coronavirus will undoubtedly be different, and that will take some time for everybody to get used to it. Protective measures will be put in place for staff and pupils, as far as is possible, to ensure that the risk of transmission remains reduced.
Schools should refer to Government and Public Health England advice and guidance. The suggested measures, along with handwashing, cleaning, and self-isolation, will lower the risk of transmission.
Now, clearly five and six year olds are not going to be able to stay two metres apart from each other at all times and the advice that is being given to schools absolutely takes that into account.
All regulations throughout the lockdown have sought to reduce the contact between households, and this will continue as children slowly return to school. Although there are logistical challenges, the guidance set out to schools will introduce ‘bubbles’ of 15 pupils, or teams or extended families, if you like, and a teacher. Breaks and lunchtimes will be staggered, but ‘bubbles’ will stay together, mix within the ‘bubble’ but not meet others. The ‘bubble’ will be an extension of a child’s household. The idea is minimising mixing much as possible, to reduce cross-contamination. This will keep children as safe as possible.
Applying the logic of households to these bubbles, if one of those children or the teacher does become symptomatic, or if there is a suspicion that it might be the virus, that entire bubble can be sent home to isolate. Testing will be available to all school children over 5 and teachers once the schools reopen.
Keeping the children contained in these bubbles and minimising the risk of cross-contamination between the bubbles is how we will keep our children safe. It is worth noting, that there are going to be challenges for schools in applying this new method and please do be patient with them while they adjust to a new way of teaching.
The government will maintain a strong dialogue with unions, schools and parents to ensure that feedback is received and acted upon moving forward.
Why have the youngest year groups been chosen to go back to school first?
Reception and Year 1 are at the very early stages of their education and they are the least able to use online learning and learn at home. The Government assesses the impact of lost education at this formational point in their lives would be much greater than of other year groups. Additionally Year 6 is a critical transition year, with potentially no school for 5/6 months and then expected to attend high school in September, the government recognises this is a giant leap forward.
This is why the youngest children have been chosen to go back to school first.
Additionally, these young children typically have smaller social circles outside schools, so even though they cannot distance from each other within school, they have far fewer interactions outside school with people from other households. For instance, a teenager will have a number of friends from different households, and the likelihood of them meeting up after school is far greater than small children. The evidence suggests that the risks of bringing back the older children are actually greater than bringing back the younger children. In essence the ‘bubble’ is much more contained, and smaller, reducing risk considerably further and the impact of losing education in the early years is more significant than in other year groups.
Do I have to send my child back to school?
The decision to return your child to school remains your choice and the Government has been clear that you will not be fined for not sending your child to school. You may have received an e-mail from your school in the last few days asking if you intend to take up a place.
You can reply yes, no or unsure, and it is important that schools know as much as possible so that they can make plans. If you are certain one way or the other, please let the school know that it is your choice, although I urge you to be guided by the science, which is supported by experts.
What about children with medical conditions?
Children with medical conditions, who may well be in the extremely vulnerable category and advised to shield are not expected to go back to school. Similarly, children who live with a family member who is extremely clinically vulnerable, are also not expected to come back to school. If you are unsure, the best person to speak to is your GP.
Some kids in the extremely vulnerable category – who are much more at risk, are not expected to come back to school, this is the same with kids who live with someone who is extremely clinically vulnerable. If you’re unsure, speak to your GP.
What happens if a child or teacher becomes ill?
Returning to the idea of bubbles, children will only be mixing with a group of 15 other children and a teacher during their school week. If the children or the teacher become symptomatic, they can be sent home and the whole bubble will be tested. The idea is that if there is any infection, it does not spread to the rest of the school and it does not spread to the rest of the community.
What have we learnt from other countries who have re-opened schools?
The Denmark approach assumes social distancing is unreliable, and the UK government accepts this approach. There was anxiety from many, and a large proportion of parents were understandably in two minds.
Children spend their day in a virtual cocoon with no crossover with other groups. Children arrive at school at different times and break times are staggered. Delivering education is different. After several weeks of reopening, there are reports that children are relieved to be back, and parents have become more confident about safety, numbers of returning students have increased. The use of face masks has not proved necessary for pupils or teachers. The Danish Union of Teachers believes PPE isn’t an issue because the strategy has ensured pupils are in small groups with a strong emphasis on hygiene. The Head of the Union, Dorte Lange has said the “reopening up to now has been quite successful”. In Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, and Belgium pupils are returning to school with similar strategies in place.
Families across the country have faced an enormously difficult time. Returning children in a controlled, phased and safe manner will give children back their education and their futures. However, I stress for a final time if the data says it is not safe, schools will not open and the Government will review the decision until the very last moment before June 1st and also once educational institutions re-open.