Is it safe to send my child back to primary school, and when will secondary schools reopen?

Parents want to know when they can send children back to school. Continued school closures will have a detrimental impact on pupil progress, Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, acknowledged earlier in the lockdown. 

Boris Johnson delivered an announcement on Sunday May 10 about phase two of the shutdown, indicating that the return to school would be gradual, rather than a wholesale lifting of the lockdown.

One week later, the Education Secretary defended the decision, saying that school is the safest place for children from difficult or unhappy homes, as he urged teachers to return to the classroom. Teachers’ unions, backed by the British Medical Association, have expressed concern about the phased reopening from June 1.

And on May 28, reporting progress in the containment of the virus, the Prime Minister confirmed that schools would reopen on Monday, June 1, for children in Reception, Years 1 and 6, and early years (nursery) programmes. “Closing schools has deprived children of their education and, as so often, it is the most disadvantaged pupils who risk being hardest hit,” Boris Johnson said in the daily pandemic briefing.

Below we answer the most frequently asked questions about when primaries and secondaries will reopen, how this time away from school will affect children’s learning, and what parents can do in the meantime to support their children at home.

Schools have been shut since March 20. In an unprecedented move, GCSE and A-level exams will not take place; instead, GCSEs, AS and A-levels will be awarded in July based on mock data, individual assessment and prior attainment. Many have questioned the accuracy of these, particularly for black and minority ethnic, working-class and other marginalised students. Students may also be allowed to sit exams early in the next academic year or in summer 2021. 

Figures from the Department for Education show that the impact of the lockdown has been far greater on education than the Government anticipated: ministers had estimated that up to 20 per cent of pupils (children of key workers and vulnerable kids) would attend emergency school; in fact, fewer than one per cent are attending. 

Boris Johnson has announced the phased reopening of primary schools on June 1, followed by the return of some secondary pupils, but he said that this was a “conditional plan” and subject to change, cautioning that this would only happen if the science supported it. 

The roadmap states that ministers hope that Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils will be able to return to school from June 1, albeit in smaller class sizes to ensure that social distancing can be implemented. 

All primary aged children will return to school “before the summer for a month if feasible”, the dossier adds, although it acknowledges this will be determined by whether the coronavirus is under control. 

However, on May 20, just a week and a half before schools are set to open their doors, the Justice Secretary acknowledged that the country is divided over the reopening of schools. 

Robert Buckland told Sky news that a “uniform” start from June 1 is unlikely, with at least 11 councils now refusing to open schools on the date set by the Prime Minister. Mr Buckland insisted that conversations were ongoing but admitted there was “not a long time to go” to persuade teachers, unions and councils it was safe. 

He then told BBC Breakfast the Government was committed to the date, but that there may be “issues” from employers that “might well mean we don’t see a uniform approach from 1 June”.

He added: “I’m not going to sit here and pretend that suddenly on June 1 everything will be uniform, I don’t know, it’s my hope.

Secondary schools have also been told to prepare for some “face to face contact” with Year 10 and 12 pupils, as these groups are one year away from sitting crucial GCSE and A-level exams. 

The guidance suggests this is likely to supplement their studies from home, and will not extend to a full transition back to the classroom. 

Ministers had earlier asked the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to look again at whether people need to stay so far apart, amid growing evidence that coronavirus does not transmit well in the air, and concerns that that will be an unrealistic expectations in schools.

And the National Education Union (NEU) had earlier written to ministers asking to see the government’s evidence on the impact of re-opening schools. It warned that acting too early would likely result in an “increased risk” to staff and children, and could “undermine people’s resolve to stick to social isolation”.

But the UK’s biggest union, the NEU, has told its members not to “engage” with plans to reopen on June 1. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has threatened local councils with legal action if teachers who refuse to work are penalised.

The NAHT has also told its members to ignore plans to open for all primary school pupils by the end of June, arguing that this is not “realistic”.

Unions have told teachers not to mark homework or take any schoolbooks home in order to avoid the spread of coronavirus. 

Maintaining social distancing remains the biggest challenge. “We are considered to be the strictest school in Britain and even we would find it impossible,” Katharine Birbalsingh, head of the Michaela school in Brent, North West London said earlier this month. 

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Who will go back first?

On May 10 the Prime Minister announced that Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 would be the first to return.

Vulnerable children and those of key workers will be encouraged to attend school, with the May 11 dossier stating that their return will have a “large societal benefit”. 

The drive to get these groups back into the classroom comes amid growing concern among ministers that the gap between disadvantaged and wealthy pupils is widening during lockdown. 

The current rate of school attendance – 2 per cent – is well below the figure that Government officials had been planning for and has been highlighted as evidence that a significant number of people who could be working are not doing so. 

Nurseries and early years providers including child minders are also expected to welcome back children from June 1.

While some education experts had pushed for older pupils to return first in order to catch up on exam prep – despite the cancellation of exams this year – this Icelandic study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, concluded that under-10s should start back first, as they are far less likely to test positive for the virus. Earlier theories had suggested that younger children simply had milder symptoms, but this study suggests they’re less likely to contract the virus.

And indeed the Government has suggested all along that it would send primary school children back first in order to minimise the threat to early years development and help parents to return to work.

Read more: How to keep the kids entertained at home

Will private schools be different?

Yes. The clue is in the name – each school has different plans.

Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, which represents more than 1,300 schools, said: “School staff have worked hard to maintain continuity of education during this crisis and have achieved great success establishing effective online learning resources in a very short space of time – and there are many good examples of these resources being made available to all schools.

“School leaders are thinking about how they could approach a phased return, taking into account their individual circumstances and the need to prioritise the wellbeing of their school community. Individualised risk assessments will be required and each school will consult and consider the best course of action in its own circumstances.

“The ISC and its associations are awaiting further details from the Government about re-opening, which we hope will bring greater clarity for schools, such as what the re-opening of boarding – including quarantine for international students – will look like. We continue to recommend that independent schools follow government guidance at this difficult time.”

Leaders in the independent sector have also said that private schools may not need to stagger classes as much as state schools because they the tend to have more space. Fee-paying institutions, which generally have smaller class sizes to begin with, could use sports halls and theatres to teach more of their pupils while social distancing measures in place.  The relative agility of the independent sector has contributed to concerns regarding the ways in which the coronavirus lockdown has increased the gulf in education between the most and least privileged children in Britain.

Some parents have complained that their schools are choosing not to open despite having spacious school buildings and grounds.

Daniel Hannan:  Private schools should spread the word that it’s time to send children back to class

What are other countries doing?

Denmark started a phased return to school on April 15, with some parents protesting and keeping their children at home. In Wuhan, where the virus started and schools had been closed since January, officials announced that final-year pupils would return to the classroom on May 6. In France, schools reopened gradually from May 11, starting with kindergartens and primary schools; pupils aged 11-15 will be expected to wear face masks.

State by state in Germany, children have returned to the classroom starting with the oldest primary school or those about to take exams. Classrooms there show careful social distancing.

Check out this school closure monitor graphic from Unesco, which shows the countries that have reopened schools. 

Pupils in Dortmund, western Germany, returned to school on April 23 with strict social distancing measures in place – AFP

Where schools have reopened in China, children are wearing masks and in some places they have their temperatures checked by thermal imaging cameras on arrival.

American states are setting their own policies regarding the lifting of lockdown, with most states beginning to open up. But key states like New York, which has been especially hard-hit by the virus, continue to operate under strict regulations, and New York schools remain closed for this academic year.

Sweden, which never imposed a lockdown in its unique approach to the pandemic, has kept schools open for under-16s. Any pupil or staff member showing signs of the virus is asked to stay at home, and schools are employing stricter than usual cleaning procedures and hand hygiene measures. Large gatherings such as assemblies are discouraged in the government’s advice, and schools have been encouraged to spend more time outside with pupils. Education for over-16s and university students has moved to virtual, distance learning. 

Will it be safe to send my kids back to school?

Rates of death and infection in the UK remain contentious, but it is clear that healthy children contract the virus at a far lower rate than older people or those with compromised immune systems.

The Education Secretary has said he would not re-open schools until scientific advice suggests that it is safe to do so.

Will schools close again if it continues to spread?

This seems likely unless the Government completely changes strategy. But any spike in cases will put pressure on the NHS and the Government will be forced to react to that.

Read more: How easily can children catch coronavirus?

Will private school fees be refunded?

No. Some schools have reduced their fees, but most have said they must charge normal summer fees in order to pay their costs. Nurseries have been more varied in their approaches.

Until schools re-open: here’s what to do

While we wait for schools to re-open, we’ve compiled expert advice on how to support your child’s learning during lockdown.

What does this mean for learning?

On the one hand, the British education system is sensibly repetitive. “Homes aren’t schools, and nor should they be,” notes Dr Dan O’Hare, an educational psychologist at the University of Bristol. “The worry is that children need a lot of ‘learning’ – but the curriculum is pretty repetitive and they’ll have covered it before, and will cover it again. Schools have been pretty good at saying that – this is not school at home.”

Dr Kevin Stannard, Director of Innovation & Learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust, echoes this point: “We’re calling this guided home learning, to highlight the teacher role, which is crucial.” While his schools broadly began with a similar schedule to what pupils would have in school, after Easter many will transition to include more breaks and possibly even Wednesdays as independent learning days. 

Unsurprisingly, Dr Stannard says younger children will need more help from parents: often when you’re into the exam stage of education, there’s a structure that you can find to adapt. “With the juniors, what you can’t do is provide a virtual learning environment throughout the day. You also need hands-on, offline activities.”

Read this: The amount of home-schooling your child really needs – according to the professionals

Parental focus should be on the social, not the academic

But the greater loss during this period is social, says Dr O’Hare. Whether age four or age 14, children rely on classroom interactions to build and maintain the social skills that will carry them through life. Adolescent development relies on peer identity. To keep that skillset going, Dr O’Hare says social media, with parental supervision, can be a very positive tool. 

What should schools be doing to support children?

On April 20, the Government launched Oak National Academy, alongside the BBC’s launch of a package of learning resources. The Oak National Academy enterprise was set up by 40 teachers from schools across England, backed by government grant funding. It provides 180 video lessons each week, across a broad range of subjects from maths to art to languages, for every year group from reception through to year 10.

But as this lockdown continues, one thing has become apparent to most families in Britain: we need teachers. Whatever we are managing to do at home is not a substitute for classroom learning. Many schools have arranged for teachers to keep in touch with parents, and I expect this will increase if the lockdown lasts through the summer term. If we can manage this well, we can have safe but regular contact between teachers and parents, which could lead to a more collaborative approach to education, in which we together take stock of where the child is and advise which sorts of resources to use. Parents need professional guidance.

Read this: Two-thirds of children have not taken part in online lessons during lockdown, study finds

Can I choose to home school instead?

Here is the Government’s guide to applying to home educate your child. If your child has a compromised immune system you should speak to your school about remaining at home throughout the coronavirus crisis, even if there is a staged reopening of schools.

Read more: Best free online resources for homeschooling

How can I home school my kids? 

Home schooling, or “home educating”, as its supporters prefer, relies on a rich catalogue of resources already available online – and ample parental involvement. 

Here is a guide to educating your child at home, including the best online resources for remote learning, science experiments and apps to foster reading and maths skills, plus GCSE and A-level prep. 

Q&A with our Education Editor Camilla Turner 

The below is from a Q&A with readers from Tuesday, May 5. You can submit a question for our next Q&A by emailing your queries to yourstory@telegraph.co.uk. 

‘I am very unkeen for my children to return to school’

Our first question comes from John Jagman in the comments section. John asks: 

“I am a relatively healthy widower in my mid 50s with two teenage children who are presently being schooled online. While children are very unlikely to die from Covid, I have read that 75 per cent are asymptomatic, meaning there’s a high risk that they could get the virus at school and give it to me. If I were to die from the virus (as Boris nearly did), the consequences for my children would be catastrophic.

“I am therefore very unkeen for my children to return to school until we either have a vaccine, or effective drug treatment or a better knowledge of who is at risk of severe disease. What can I do if schools reopen?”

Here’s what Camilla has to say:

The Government has not yet announced whether it will be compulsory or optional for children to attend school when they do reopen. Headteachers believe that parents should have the right to choose whether to send their children to school, particularly if children or other members of their household have underlying health conditions which makes them more likely to develop severe health conditions if they catch coronavirus. Ministers are likely to confirm in the coming weeks what the position will be.

It is true that there are still gaps in scientists’ knowledge about the levels of transmissibility in asymptomatic children. Last week, Prof Stephen Powis, medical director of NHS England, said there is “no reason” to think children would not be able to transmit if they are symptomatic. But he added that the “big question” is how many children have the virus but are asymptomatic, and how transmissible it is between them, saying: “The true answer is that evidence is still emerging in children who don’t show symptoms.”

‘We have two children with asthma and are worried about them being exposed’

Our next question comes from a reader who’d like to remain anonymous. They ask:

“We have two children, one who has asthma. When schools return, will children be forced to attend (as per normal) or will there be an option to continue homeschooling until treatment or vaccine is available? Will the government enforce schooling at school. We are very worried about our children being exposed during the coming months.”

Here’s Camilla’s answer:

The Government has not yet announced whether it will be compulsory or optional for children to attend school when they do reopen. Headteachers believe that parents should have the right to choose whether to send their children to school, particularly if children or other members of their household have underlying health conditions which makes them more likely to develop severe health conditions if they catch coronavirus. Ministers are likely to confirm in the coming weeks what the position will be.

‘Is there a date in sight for reopening schools?’

Our next question comes from Tilly Bean via email. Tilly asks: 

Do you know whether the government has a date in sight for reopening schools yet or is it too soon?

Here’s what Camilla has to say:

There has been no official public announcement from the Government on this, but one is likely in the coming days. Whitehall sources have indicated that primary schools are expected to reopen on June 1 at the earliest, which is just after the May half term break, with Year 6 pupils likely to be the first back. 

The reopening of schools is going to be phased, with different year groups coming back at different times. This is so that schools are more able to observe social distancing, which headteachers say will be impossible if all pupils came back at once. 

The earliest possible return of primary schoolchildren is intended to minimise the threat to “early years development” and help parents to return to work.Year 10 and Year 12 pupils are expected to form the first wave of pupils returning to secondary school at a later point.

‘Will university students get extensions on assignments?’ 

Our next question comes from a reader who’d like to remain anonymous. They ask:

“I have a daughter in her last year at university that has just closed.  Will they get extensions on assignments if they are not cancelled due to the amount of stress and pressure the students are currently under?  And what about university Exams will they also be cancelled?”

Here’s what Camilla has to say: 

Since universities are all independent and autonomous organisations, they are each coming up with their own policies on how to proceed in the current climate. However, they do have to adhere to guidelines from the higher education regulator, the Office for Students, which has the power to issue financial penalties to universities that breach conditions. 

Most universities have cancelled all traditional exams and come up with an alternative way to award students their degrees, often with online assessments. Many universities have also promised to have a “no detriment” policy meaning they will ensure that final year students will not be at a disadvantage compared to other years. You would need to ask these questions to your daughter’s university to get a more precise answer.

‘Will there be social distancing in schools?’

Our next question comes from a reader who’d like to remain anonymous. They ask:

“Will there be social distancing in schools? Or will the classes be full? Will the children be safe?”

Here’s Camilla’s answer:

Yes, schools will be expected to observe social distancing rules where possible. 

Schools will reopen in a phased manner with certain year groups returning at different times. This is to make it easier to keep children two metres away from one another. With fewer children in school on any one day, schools will be able to split class up into multiple classrooms, so that desks can be pushed further apart. Break times and lunch time, as well as the beginning and end of the school day and lessons could also be staggered to avoid having lots of children in corridors, in the playground or at the school gates at the same time.

‘How will coronavirus affect students studying their GCSEs?’

Our next question comes from Clare Rusher via email:

“I am a mother of a year 10 students, how will coronavirus affects students currently studying their GCSE`s with exams taking place next year ? All Year 10 students will miss 4 months of teaching from an actual teacher. Online learning is a great medium but it is not the same as face to face teaching.”

Here’s Camilla’s answer:

There is a great deal of concern among headteachers that students in both Year 10, who are in the middle of their GCSE course, as well as those in Year 12, who are in the middle of their A-level course. It is likely that when schools do reopen, these two year groups will be prioritised for an early return. The Department for Education has said there are currently no plans for either Year 10 or Year 12 students to have to repeat a year of school. 

Ofqual, the exam watchdog, says that it appreciates that Year 10 and 12 students are experiencing disruption to their courses, but has said that it is “too soon to say” how much impact this will have on their performance in exams next summer. If there is evidence to suggest that they will perform worse in their exams next summer, as a result of the disruption caused by missing so much school, then Ofqual says it will work with exam boards to ensure the students are not disadvantaged. They have not specified what this will entail. 

‘My four-year-old won’t stick to a two metre rule’

Our next question comes from Steph Cable via email. Steph asks:

“My four nearly five-year-old is in Reception at a state primary in a small town. There is no way he would stick to a two metre rule. He will be so excited to see his teacher and class mates he is likely to break the rule within minutes of getting through the gates.

“It is a small school without room to distance the children in the classrooms. The playground and PE will be non-starters for social distancing. How is this safe?” 

Here’s what Camilla has to say:

Schools will be expected to enforce social distancing as much as possible when schools reopen. However, there is a recognition among headteachers that there is a limit to how possible this will be, particularly with younger children. 

In terms of safety, there is a difference between young children and adults in terms of the transmissibility of coronavirus. Prof Stephen Powis, medical director of NHS England, said there is “no reason” to think children would not be able to transmit if they are symptomatic. It is expected that children who display symptoms of coronavirus should stay at home and isolate, along with the rest of their household, rather than go to school. 

However, Prof Powis added that the position on the transmissibility of asymptomatic children is less clear, explaining: “The true answer is that evidence is still emerging in children who don’t show symptoms.” 

‘When will there be clear guidance for Year 11 students?’

Our next question comes from Alison via WhatsApp. Here’s what Alison’s has to say: 

“When do you anticipate that some clear guidance regarding Year 11 students will be provided i.e. exam results, appeals process, college applications etc?”

Here’s what Camilla has to say:

Ofqual, the exam regulator, has already issued guidance on some of these issues. For example, it has confirmed that A-level students will receive their results on August 13 and GCSE students will receive theirs on August 20. 

We are still waiting to hear more details about the appeals process from Ofqual. So far, they have said that students will be able to appeal against their predicted grades only if their schools believe there has been some kind of data error or processing error. Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has said that he is very keen for students to have the opportunity to sit an “appeal exam” in autumn or as soon as it is reasonably practical. This is so that students can prove that they can get a higher grade than their predicted grade. 

Details on the autumn appeal exams have not yet been finalised. Ofqual recently did a consultation on this issue, and are due to report back with the response “later this month”. 

For college applications, it is likely that individual colleges may have their own processes in place with timelines and deadlines, so it is worth checking to see if they have any details specific to them on their websites.

‘Will children be tested?’

Our next question comes from Tara ColettaTara asks:

“All of my children have had huge outbreaks of cough/fever at school stemming back to before Christmas. Where are children on this pecking order of testing? It would only take testing a few children from each school to establish how widespread the virus may be.”

 Here’s what Camilla has to say:

The Government has not yet announced anything about testing for children so it is unclear at this stage what, if any, plans there are for this.

‘How will students catch up on missed work?’

Our next question comes from Carolyn Jarvis in the comments section. Carolyn asks:

“What would the plan be if schools are still only part-time in September? They can’t ask children who have missed 14 out of 39 weeks of this academic year to progress to the next academic year in September part-time? Especially the younger children who are going to take weeks to settle back into a school environment after months and months off in social isolation.”

Here’s Camilla’s answer:

Each school is likely to come up with its own plan on how to make sure pupils can catch up on any important work they have missed while schools are closed. It is unlikely that there will be any Government policy making children repeat a year of school, but each school will decide what the needs of its pupils are and how best it can cater to them.

‘Where can I find information about safety in schools?’

Our final question comes from Mike via WhatsApp. Mike asks:

“Where can one find the best information about safety in schools  as they start to open?”

Here’s what Camilla recommends:

The best place to look is the Department for Education’s website for their official guidelines on safety in schools. Currently, the guidelines they have published on their website refer specifically to the current period when schools are open only for a small number of children (the most vulnerable and those whose parents are key workers). These guidelines are likely to be updated in due course to include information about safety in schools when they reopen for more pupils, so the best thing to do is keep checking their site. 

Are you a teacher or parent who will be impacted by schools reopening? Do you think June is too soon? Or do you feel quite prepared? Share your thoughts on the proposed reopening below or send an email to yourstory@telegraph.co.uk

 

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