During a televised address to the nation last night, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he believes England may be in a position to get primary pupils back to school in steps staggered by year groups “at the earliest by June 1” as the UK continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic. He said his ambition was to get secondary pupils facing exams next year to have “at least some time with their teachers before the holidays”.
During the 12-minute video, the Prime Minister said pupils in years one, six and reception could be among the first to return after the half term break.
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Students at secondary schools due to sit exams next year will also be seen as a priority.
Mr Johnson said: “On step two – at the earliest by June 1 – after half term – we believe we may be in a position to begin the phased reopening of shops and to get primary pupils back into schools, in stages, beginning with reception, Year 1 and Year 6.
“Our ambition is that secondary pupils facing exams next year will get at least some time with their teachers before the holidays.
“And we will shortly be setting out detailed guidance on how to make it work in schools and shops and on transport.”
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UK schools could reopen on June 1
The Prime Minister highlighted that it was a conditional plan – and could be amended at any point.
Mr Johnson also relaxed his slogan to “stay alert, control the virus and save lives” amid concerns that weeks of strong messaging to “stay home” had encouraged too many people to stop working.
The Tory leader is now telling the public to “stay at home as much as “, keep two metres apart when going out and “limit contact” with other people.
Teaching unions have criticised the plans – with one raising concerns about how social distancing can be managed with younger children.
Following the Prime Minister’s announcement that schools could begin a phased reopening in June, the leader of the largest teaching union described the plan as “reckless”.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said that “realistically” there was no prospect of other secondary pupils returning to class before September.
Dr Bousted said: “We think that the announcement by the Government that schools may reopen from June 1 with reception and years one and six is nothing short of reckless.
“Coronavirus continues to ravage communities in the UK and the rate of COVID-19 infection is still far too great for the wider opening of our schools.”
Dr Bousted urged the Government to meet five tests set out by teaching unions, which includes extra money for deep cleaning and personal protective equipment (PPE) and local powers to close schools if clusters of Covid-19 infections break out in a particular area.
“If schools are re-opened to blatant breaches of health and safety, we will strongly support our members taking steps to protect their pupils, their colleagues and their families.”
The general secretary of the teachers’ union said the profession has “very serious concerns” about children returning to school on June 1.
Patrick Roach, of NASUWT, told BBC Breakfast: “The fact of the matter is the Government has announced a date but hasn’t come forward with a plan about how schools will ensure that they’re safe for pupils and safe for staff to be in from June 1.
“And the Prime Minister said that it would be madness to risk a second spike in relation to transmission of the virus. Well the profession has got very serious concerns about that announcement of June 1, whether indeed it is possible to achieve it, but also how to achieve that in a way which is safe for pupils and staff.”
He said there is strong evidence schools are lacking personal protective equipment (PPE), adding: “If you’re dealing with five and six-year-olds and 11-year-olds, how to ensure stringent social distancing in that context is a big challenge and Government simply haven’t answered that challenge.
“And finally, just in terms of risk assessments, parents will want to know that schools are going to be hygienic, they’re going to be safe for their children to be in. And we still don’t have any clear standards about what safe cleaning routines would be like within a school context and we need to have that.”
A headteacher expressed concerns about how social distancing could be managed, particularly with younger children.
Bryony Baynes, headteacher of Kempsey Primary School, said: “I’m slightly flabbergasted. I understand that we need to begin the sense of returning to normality, and I understand that a big part of returning to normal is getting the school back up and going.
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“However, how on earth are we to manage social distancing between reception and year one pupils when most of them are aged four and five?
“Boris has made a very general statement tonight and then he’s gone off and all of my parents will now be clamouring for details.
“I don’t know how to manage that and I don’t know how to manage getting the reception class into school and keeping them safe.”
Responding to concerns, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said there would be “clear guidance” over how children should social distance.
He told BBC Breakfast: “We will make sure that we would have clear guidance about how that can be done with social distancing, with hygiene.
“The evidence suggests that there’s very little, there’s much lower risk for young children getting this virus.
“The risk is that you get transmission through children between households… so what we want to do is make sure, and we’ll obviously have more evidence by the time we get to June 1, which will be at the earliest, subject to conditions, the point at which we start in a very phased controlled way proceeding.
“So we’ll be providing that guidance and we’ll be able to monitor very carefully what happens to the virus between now and then.”