Schools may not fully reopen until after September, the health secretary has hinted amid concern from educators that it may be impossible to impose social distancing rules once classrooms are filled.
Primary schools across the UK have already been given the green light to have some year six, year one and reception-aged children return to classes after months without formal education.
However, the return has been far from universal – with a number of councils refusing to ask schools in their area to reopen amid concern from unions that it will be impossible to keep teachers and students safe from the virus which has claimed the lives of more than 40,000 across the country.
Now the health secretary Matt Hancock has hinted that a full return to classrooms may not be possible when the next academic year begins – stating it is the “current working plan” for education to resume in September.
Asked at the evening Downing Street press conference whether schools would be able to reopen fully in the new academic year with social distancing rules in place, Mr Hancock said: “That is our current working plan – that secondary schools won’t open until September at the earliest.
“I very much hope that they can because the impact on children’s education is so significant.
“But what we have to do – not only in schools, but right across the board – is work out how we can get the other things that matter going.
“Like schools, like hospitality – especially outdoor hospitality, like retail. And get them going safely and carefully, in a way that doesn’t lead to the spread of the virus, and that is going to require ingenuity.”
Meanwhile, a source at the Department for Education told The Daily Telegraph that the “intention is to have “business as usual in all schools come September” but admitted there were no guarantees given the uncertainty about the infection rate.
It comes after schools were urged to reconsider opening after it was thought the rate of reproduction of the virus – or R number – had risen beyond one in some areas like the north west, meaning it was increasingly spreading among the community.
General secretary of teachers union NASUWT, Dr Patrick Roach, urged education providers to “fulfil their duty of care to staff and pupils by rethinking plans for the wider reopening of schools in their region” as a result.
However, Mr Hancock, who today asserted the national R rate was between 0.7 and 0.9 and was no higher than one in any region of the country, said it was a mistake for councils and schools to look at “just one model” when considering whether to let pupils back.
In the Commons, Tory MP Andy Carter asked: “Does the Secretary of State agree with me that local authorities need to look at a number of local factors, not just regional R data for a wider area, when taking important decisions on getting our children back to school?”
Mr Hancock replied: “It is particularly a mistake to look at just one model rather the overall assessment of R in each part of the country – which is assessed to below one in each area – and therefore with the number of new infections coming down we can take the plan forward – and we ought to take the plan forward – because the education of children matters, as well, of course, as controlling the virus.”
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