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June school reopenings: what parents need to know

Empty classroom

Image: svetlanaz/stock.adobe.com

Most families have been at home for going on two months now and the lockdown has created many new challenges and opportunities for parents, carers and children. Anyone who has had to add schoolwork to their home routine will know that keeping a child focused can be a struggle.

School remains the best place for children to learn – especially those in key transition stages in their education, such as Reception, Year 1 and Year 6. However, any return to school will be reliant on certain conditions around the COVID-19 pandemic being met. While many parents need school to reopen in order to get back to work, many will also feel anxious about their child heading back into the classroom environment.

Here is what you need to know about the phased school reopening and what it might mean for your family.

What’s the latest on schools reopening?

On 11 May the Department for Education unveiled plans to begin a gradual reopening of mainstream and independent schools in England as well as certain childcare services.

Since the UK-wide lockdown was announced, schools have only been open for vulnerable and special educational needs (SEN) children, and the children of key workers. The new plans – which go into effect from 1 June – will allow certain age groups to return to school. These include:

  • Nursery-aged children
  • Reception-aged children
  • Pupils in Year 1, 6, 10 and 12

This doesn’t mean, however, that things will go back to the way they were. Classes will be half the size, or up to 15 pupils, to help maintain social distancing as much as possible.

Primary schools: Children in the eligible age groups will be encouraged to attend class, with the added safety measures in place.

Secondary schools: Children in Year 10 and 12 will not go back to school full-time, but their school must offer them the opportunity to have some face-to-face support to supplement their remote education.

Why has the government decided to reopen schools?

Since the lockdown was introduced on 23 March, the rate of infection has reduced significantly, to the point where the government has decided it is safe for a large part of the school community to return.

That said, the government has five key tests that must give satisfactory results for the opening of schools to go ahead and has said it will not hesitate to delay if it leads to more people getting sick.

The five tests must show that:

  • not too much strain is put on the NHS
  • the number of deaths per day is falling
  • the rate of infection is manageable (the R-rate stays below 1)
  • there’s enough testing equipment to go around
  • there’s no risk of a ‘second peak’

Why have the early years pupils been prioritised?

The government’s decision to get the younger pupils back in school first is in line with what a lot of other European countries have already done. There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, children in nursery, Reception and Year 1 are just about to start their formal education. They are in the process of learning the skills, such as reading and writing, which will form the basis for the rest of their school experience.

Likewise, Year 6 pupils are at a key point in their education where they’re about to transition from primary to secondary school. The government believes it will be better for them to spend the last few weeks in a familiar setting with their teachers and classmates.

Secondly, research has shown that younger children are much less likely to fall ill due to COVID-19 and the consequences of them being kept away from classroom education are likely to be more severe than with older pupils.

Older school children have been able to adapt better to distance learning and the government is concerned that bringing them all back could increase the rate of infection, as they’re likely to have a larger network of friends than early years pupils.

Do I have to send my child back to school?

The government has said that children in the eligible age groups are no longer required to stay at home. However, a decision to send a child back to school ultimately rests with parents and carers.

Parents will not be fined if they decide to continue with remote learning – and schools are not expected to keep physical attendance records.

But, as many parents may be aware, children’s educational (and social) needs are often better met at school and children will benefit from returning to classroom education. Individual schools will be offering their own guidance and it is important that parents stay alert to school communications, to help with making their own decisions.

What will happen to exams this year?

Exams are not going ahead at the end of this academic year. Instead, the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) has decided that all pupils who were preparing for their GCSEs, A-Levels, AS-Levels or SATs this year will instead be given a grade based on their previous schoolwork, tests and their teacher’s assessment.

You can find out more about how COVID-19 will affect exams here.

What are schools doing to keep children safe?

In addition to breaking classes into smaller groups, the government has issued specific guidance for schools to minimise the risk of infection.

Schools are expected to, among other things, rearrange classrooms so that the two-metre distance rule is upheld as much as possible, encourage both staff and pupils to wash their hands regularly for at least 20 seconds and ensure that the facilities are always kept clean.

They’ve also been asked to reduce the number of ‘pinch points’ – times where a lot of people could potentially be in contact – by altering timetables and staggering break times.

Pupils who develop COVID-like symptoms will, of course, be sent home. If they later test positive for the virus, the whole class will be sent home and will need to self-isolate for 14 days.

Will face masks or coverings be needed?

The new guidance specifically says that neither adults or children are required to wear face masks, coverings or other personal protective equipment (PPE) at school.

According to the government, face coverings can be helpful for short outings – like going to the shop or if you have to use public transport. But they can actually increase the risk of transmission if worn by children or young people who might not be able to use them correctly.

The only circumstance where teachers are advised to use masks, or other PPE, is if a pupil falls ill with coronavirus-like symptoms at school – in which case any teachers looking after them should use appropriate PPE until the pupil is able to return home.

What if someone in my household is clinically vulnerable?

Some people living with pre-existing conditions might be especially at risk of catching COVID-19 and so the people living with them must take some additional precautions.

If your child is in the clinically vulnerable category, you should seek the advice of a doctor before deciding to send your child back to school or not. If your child is living with someone who’s clinically vulnerable, they’ll still be encouraged to attend school while adhering to strict social distancing.

The same can’t be said if your child’s condition falls into the extremely clinically vulnerable category, in which case they are not encouraged to return to school but instead to keep ‘shielding’ at home. This will only apply to a very small number of people, but Public Health England has set out a specific set of guidelines for those who live in a household with someone who’s extremely clinically vulnerable.

My child has special educational needs (SEN) – what do I need to know?

Schools remain open to all vulnerable and SEN children and they are encouraged to attend as they might receive better support there than at home. Vulnerable children can, however, continue distance learning if their social worker believes that they are less at risk at home or in placement.

If your child has an education, health and care (EHC) plan, your local authority can help you carry out a risk assessment on whether your child’s needs can be met at home or if it’s in their best interest to return to their education setting.

The Department for Education has set out special guidance for parents of children who are vulnerable or have special education needs.

When will schools return to normal?

COVID-19 will continue to impact society for some time and it’s hard to predict when schools will return to the way they were before the outbreak.

The government is constantly reviewing its guidance depending on what the evidence is saying. But the Department for Education has tentative plans to have all primary-aged children back in school for a month before the summer holidays, as long as it is safe to do so.

What about the rest of the UK?

So far, only guidance for schools in England has been released. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all said that their respective governments will make the decision on when to reopen schools in their country.

Northern Ireland’s education minister Peter Weir has said it’s “extremely likely” that schools in Northern Ireland will reopen gradually from September.

Wales’s education minister Kirsty Williams has said that, despite what England has decided, schools in Wales will not open on 1 June.

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon has not given any indication as to when Scottish schools might start to reopen, only that the Scottish government will be the one to give the go-ahead.

Find out more

Department for Education – What parents and carers need to know about schools, colleges and other education settings during the coronavirus outbreak

Department for Education – Supporting vulnerable children and young people during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak

Public Health England – COVID-19: guidance for young people on shielding and protecting people most likely to become unwell if they catch coronavirus

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