Boris Johnson has set out the government’s school reopening plans, confirming that all schools will reopen to all pupils on March 8.
The prime minister said that “two weeks from today, pupils and students in all schools and further education settings can safely return to face-to-face teaching, supported by twice weekly testing of secondary schools and college pupils”.
However, the Department for Education has said that secondary schools will have “discretion on how to test students” over the first week week back “to enable their return to the classroom”.
Schools have been closed to all but the most vulnerable pupils and children of key workers since January 5.
Today’s confirmation that the government is pursuing a “big bang” approach to returning pupils to school comes despite warnings from unions that it risks a spike in cases.
The government has also confirmed arrangements for asymptomatic testing of pupils and staff.
Pupils returning to secondary schools will be tested three times on site and then once at home in the first two weeks back.
After that, they will be expected to be tested twice weekly at home and report results to schools to record. Secondary staff will also get twice weekly home tests.
There will be no tests for primary school pupils, though staff will continue to have to test themselves at home twice a week.
Face coverings in secondary classrooms
The government’s roadmap is also recommending that the use of face coverings in secondary schools be extended to all indoor environments, “including classrooms”, for a “limited period”.
However, DfE guidance states that this “does not apply in situations where wearing a face covering would impact on the ability to take part in exercise or strenuous activity, for example in PE lessons”.
Those who rely on “visual signals for communication, or communicate with or provide support to such individuals, are currently exempt from any requirement to wear face coverings in schools or in public places”.
In primary schools, face coverings “should be worn by staff and adult visitors in situations where social distancing between adults is not possible (for example, when moving around in corridors and communal areas)”. But children in primary school “do not need to wear a face covering”.
Johnson warned Parliament this afternoon that lifting lockdown “will result in more cases, more hospitalisations and sadly more deaths”.
“This would happen whenever lockdown is lifted, whether now or in six or nine months, because there will always be some vulnerable people who are not protected by the vaccine,” he added.
But he insisted that classrooms were “the best places for our young people to be”.
Scientists warn of infection rate rise
But in papers released today, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling said its “consensus view” was that the opening of primary and secondary schools was “likely to increase effective R by a factor of 1.1 to 1.5 (10 per cent to 50 per cent)”.
The group also said an “initial limited and cautious” reopening of schools – for example only primaries – for a time-limited period “in the absence of easing other restrictions” would allow for an assessment of the impact on community transmission.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the announcement today showed Johnson had “failed to learn the lessons of his previous mistakes”.
“A ‘big bang’ school reopening brings 10 million people back into crowded buildings with no social distancing and inadequate ventilation. The wearing of face masks by pupils and staff in in secondary school lessons is a welcome measure but it is not, on its own enough.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union, said he was “concerned” that the decision “may prove counterproductive and lead to more disruption”.
“We fear that England’s less cautious approach runs the risk of increasing the rate of infection and prolonging the damaging cycle of stop-start schooling, and we will be studying the data carefully to understand the rationale for this decision.”