Communities secretary Robert Jenrick has said this week that schools will be safe to reopen in September and that getting children back into full-time education is an “absolute priority” for the government.
The prime minister has previously promised that primary and secondary schools in England will return “with full attendance” in September.
Echoing the PM’s words, Jenrick said: “We have to get children back to school in September.”
Jenrick’s reassurances came after teaching unions had called for clarity over what is to be expected in September as the rate of Covid-19 cases increased in England and the government decided to put further lockdown easing on hold. A number of additional restrictions were also brought into force in parts of the north west.
Schools are due to reopen to all pupils in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland at the beginning of the upcoming term, having been closed since March to all but vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.
Prior to the summer holiday, some schools had been able to readmit certain year groups.
The town of Oldham in Greater Manchester is one area of the north west which has been affected by newly enforced restrictions amid a rise in cases.
Speaking on the Leaders Council podcast, Andrew Clowes, head teacher at Oldham’s Hey With Zion Primary School, commented: “When we and all schools were told to close back on March 20 for all but vulnerable pupils, it brought a real feeling of sadness. Teaching is more than just a job for us and it ties into our identity.
“Going from having 305 children in school to just 15 was a real change, but we felt that we were doing our part during a national crisis to enable the NHS and key services to concentrate their efforts on saving lives. I have been incredibly impressed by my staff and their response. I have immense respect for the fact that they put concerns over salaries and holiday entitlements aside.”
Paying further tribute to the efforts of his school’s staff, Clowes added: “Besides educating children we feel schools have a pastoral role of looking out for children’s welfare. No child came to school with a ‘vulnerable’ tag, people go through periods of vulnerability throughout their lives. Throughout lockdown our teachers have checked in regularly with families and we found we were working with various people in different circumstances. I’ve seen staff delivering food parcels, work packs, textbooks, contacting social workers and school nurses, just to make sure people were getting the different types of support they needed.”
“We also have a young teacher in charge of a class of children mostly aged six. She went to the effort of making a bead bracelet for each pupil in her spare time and went around to each of their homes to give them these bracelets just to show them they are cherished and we cannot wait to have them back.”
It is Clowes’ hopes of having pupils back in school as planned that remains in doubt, in spite of the government’s insistence that it will happen on schedule.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has warned that the country is “near the limit” for reopening society, while scientists advising the government have hinted that some restrictions may need to be reintroduced to allow pupils to return to school in earnest, such as closing pubs and restaurants once more.
Professor Graham Medley, chair of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies [SAGE] sub-group on pandemic modelling, said: "It might come down to a question of which do you trade-off against each other, and then that's a matter of prioritising. Do we think pubs are more important than schools?"
When quizzed on the issue, Jenrick said that it was vital for children to return to in-person contact time with teachers and warned that remote learning was no “substitute for getting children back into the classroom”.
He said: “We're working very closely with headteachers and the teaching unions to make sure that all the steps necessary are put in place over the summer so that the children can go back in September and it is an absolute priority for the government.
"We published very detailed guidelines and of course we're going to keep working with headteachers over the course of August as they finalise their own plans as to how their schools can operate safely in accordance with the guidelines."
A Department for Education spokesperson has also said: "We have set out the controls schools should use, including cleaning and hygiene measures, to substantially reduce the risk of transmission of the virus when they open to all children from September."
However, the NASUWT teachers’ union general secretary Patrick Roach said over the weekend that the government would need to convince school staff and parents that reopening schools as planned can be done safely.
Roach said: “The warning from the chief medical officer that a fine balance has to be struck in ensuring public health at this stage of the pandemic, and that the country may have reached the limits to the easing of lockdown, will no doubt prompt questions for many parents as well as for those working in schools.”
Roach added that the government had to provide teachers with clarity over scientific advice and “sufficient time to review and, if necessary, adjust their reopening plans”.