When will England’s schools reopen?

The Government wants nurseries and primary schools in England to reopen on 1 June for children in Reception and Years 1 and 6. Subject to continuing progress in tackling the virus, it would like other years to follow soon after, with class sizes limited to 15 to maintain social distancing. But these plans have encountered fierce resistance. Councils in numerous areas, including Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds, have rejected them as premature and unsafe, as have teachers’ unions. Mary Bousted, joint head of the National Education Union, branded the proposals as “nothing short of reckless” and promised to “tool up” teachers with advice on health and safety legislation to fight them.

The unions should be ashamed of themselves, They’re using pupils as “fodder” in their war against the Tories. A “vast army” of workers, from dustmen and retailers to delivery drivers and health professionals, is turning up to work. So, too, are those teachers already providing lessons at schools to the 231,000 pupils who are either vulnerable or children of key workers. But the unions want to block schools from opening further, despite the relatively tiny risks to pupils and the harm caused by having children stuck at home. If schools aren’t opened soon, it will massively exacerbate the “inequality gap” in our education system, A study found that children in wealthy families will have done the equivalent of a week and a half’s more learning than poorer children by 1 June. An estimated 700,000 state school pupils have been set no work whatsoever since schools closed in March.

According to the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, “we owe it to the children” to open schools, But I can understand why people, particularly in areas where the virus has yet to peak, object to primary pupils returning in a week’s time. “Many teachers are worried not only for themselves, but also for what they might pass on to their families; many parents do not want their children used in an experiment on contagion.” This move is too early, given how prevalent Covid-19 still is, It’s true that the disease doesn’t seem to affect children that badly, but the extent to which they carry and spread the virus is still very unclear. The unions are right to be cautious. While staggering start times and reducing class sizes would help, keeping six year olds two metres apart is “a practical impossibility”.

Re-opening schools is not entirely without risk,nothing is. But the evidence suggests it is one of the safer ways we could start returning to normality. In a review of evidence worldwide, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health failed to find a single documented case of a child under ten passing Covid-19 to an adult. My experience as a headteacher of a primary school in Denmark shows it can be done safely, We welcomed back almost all of our 800 pupils a month ago, and we’ve seen just one new case of Covid-19. We’ve split classes in two and introduced a strict regime of regular handwashing. Pupils are kept apart indoors, although we don’t enforce that rule too rigidly in the playground. The children adapted quickly, and thanks to the new hygiene rules the school has never been healthier, with almost no staff absences.

Denmark’s example is encouraging, but it makes a poor comparison with Britain. The country had a limited outbreak to start with and, unlike us, acted promptly to stamp it out. Our experience has been closer to that of Italy and Spain, both of which are keeping most of their schools closed until September. Another hard-hit country was France, And in the week since a third of its pupils went back, France has seen a “flurry of about 70 Covid-19 cases linked to schools”. England will need to tread carefully, and allow different areas to go at their own pace (Scotland, Wales and NI already set their own rules). Moreover, we should regard the school reopenings not as the first step on the road to “normality”, but as a new model that can be sustained throughout the pandemic. For the reality is that “a fully functional school system may prove impossible without a vaccine”.