As of the press conference on 28 May, the Prime Minister has announced that, currently, we are meeting the five tests and has confirmed that the reopening of schools in England will go ahead for 1 June. Schools are being advised on how to reopen safely and on 15 June, secondary schools will begin to provide some face-to-face contact time for years 10 and 12.
I would like to begin by recognising that teachers too are on the frontline of our national response to Coronavirus and I would like to thank them and their colleagues for all the work they have been doing.
I understand the concerns of staff and parents alike on the reopening of schools. I assure you that saving lives is the top priority of the Government in all decisions it makes. This is the essential point to remember with the Prime Minister’s COVID-19 recovery plan.
Further, all decisions are made in keeping with advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). This advice says that schools are considered safe settings for children. With that said, it is worth noting that all five of the following tests must be met in advance of 1 June for schools to reopen:
- Protect the NHS’s ability to cope. We must be confident that we are able to provide sufficient critical care and specialist treatment right across the UK.
- See a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rates from COVID-19 so we are confident that we have moved beyond the peak.
- Reliable data from SAGE showing that the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels across the board.
- Be confident that the range of operational challenges, including testing capacity and PPE, are in hand, with supply able to meet future demand.
- Be confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelms the NHS.
If these conditions are met then, no earlier than 1 June, children will be able to return to early years settings, and Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 classes will be able to return to school in smaller sizes. Secondary schools, sixth forms and colleges will also work towards the possibility of providing some face-to-face contact with young people in Year 10 and Year 12 to help them prepare for exams next year. Families will be strongly encouraged to take up these places.
This announcement signals the phasing out of the general school closure that has been in place since March for most pupils. These closures apply to early years providers, further education providers, sixth form providers and private schools.
You’re right to raise the point that we need a phased and cautious approach to reopening schools. This is why the Government has chosen specific year groups to return to school, there will be no penalty for families who do not send their children to school and households in which children or family members are shielding are advised not to enter schools.
I understand that parents and staff are concerned about maintaining safe practices. I assure you that the Government recognises that young children may not be able to social distance effectively. Primary schools are being guided to stagger breaks and lunches, operate in small groups of 15 pupils and a teacher, and use the educational setting to minimise the risk of infection. There is also an emphasis on general hygiene and disinfectant cleaning to protect staff and pupils. This guidance, including information about who can send their children to school, can be read here.
Of course, these measures do mean that summer assessments and exams will not go ahead as planned. Students who were due to sit A level, AS level or GCSE exams this summer will receive a calculated grade, based on a range of evidence.
Self-isolation is still required for those with symptoms or a confirmed case of COVID-19, as well as for everyone in their household. Symptoms have been updated to include:
- a new, continuous cough
- a high temperature, or
- a loss of or change in their normal sense of smell or taste
This is alongside the recruitment of a test and trace workforce to locate and encourage those that have been in contact with Coronavirus sufferers to self-isolate. Doing this will help control the virus, keeping new infections to a minimum as restrictions on movement, work and schooling are slowly changed. The Prime Minister told the Commons on 20 May that 25,000 people will have been recruited to this role in England ready for 1 June.
I believe that the upshot of opening schools is providing key education to small groups of children who require it most, as we safely can. This will have a positive impact on mental health and can particularly help children who would otherwise be disadvantaged, giving them the best prospects coming out of this crisis.
Thank you for your concern on this matter. As the situation develops, I will continue to publish updates here. As ever, if you require any further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.