Schools reopening: where are we now?

15 Jun 2020 By Imogen Proud

Since primary schools ‘reopened’ for years 1, 2 and 6 on 1 June, the return to school has barely left the headlines.

Teaching unions have taken the view that it is not yet safe for their members to return to school amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and at least 54 councils in England took the side of the unions by either telling schools not to reopen or leaving the decisions up to headteachers. Parents who keep their children at home do not currently face any fines.

Until last week, the government insisted all primary school children would go back for a month before the summer holidays. However, on 9 June, the education secretary Gavin Williamson conceded that this had changed, and “we will be working to bring all children back to school in September”. The Guardian reported this as “the latest screeching U-turn” from DfE.

This slippage will anger those who feel that children’s right to education is being sacrificed by the continuing closure of schools for the majority of year groups, particularly since children are considered to be at much lower risk of contracting Covid-19 than adults. See my earlier blog post on the continuing impact of school closures for pupils, particularly the most vulnerable learners, and its potential legal implications.

“Us for Them”, a campaigning organisation on behalf of parents, which calls for the return to school of all pupils as soon as possible, has written an open letter to Gavin Williamson asking to be shown the science said to be backing government back-to-school policy. The letter was covered in depth by the Daily Mail. The group considers that current policy unlawfully subordinates the welfare of children to other interests and is poised to launch a legal challenge.

The Telegraph commented back on 19 May 2020 that “it is fear – not science – that is stopping our children being educated”. On June 10 2020, the Telegraph became the first mainstream paper to call for social distancing in schools to be scrapped in order “to save our children’s education”. The paper argues for a hard deadline of September for a full return to normality in classrooms (here).

The Prime Minister made a surprise announcement on 10 June 2020 of a “massive catch-up operation” for children in England who had missed out on months of schooling. This was met with surprise from headteachers, local authorities and unions who had not been consulted. An announcement from Gavin Williamson is expected this week, and it may include vouchers for online tutoring and volunteer-led summer holiday programmes (see the Guardian’s coverage here).

There are suggestions that the so-called ‘2-metre rule’ may be removed by September which would allow a full return to school. The Government’s chief scientific advisor Dr Patrick Vallance suggested last week that the 2-metre diktat was “not a scientific rule” and had never been official advice. That news came after many schools had invested a great deal of money and time making changes to school buildings to allow 2-metre distancing for the year groups yet to return, such as introducing one-way systems and changing classroom layouts. This has led many headteachers to criticise the frequent guidance changes for England’s schools.

Imogen Proud is instructed by Us for Them.