The prime minister has admitted it will be “tough” to reopen schools at the start of next month but has pledged to work with English councils to ease the process.
Boris Johnson, who replaced Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick at the Downing Street briefing on Sunday, acknowledged the planned reopening date of 1 June may not be possible for all schools but remained committed to it.
During the press conference, which was hosted by the PM after his top aide Dominic Cummings came under fire for allegedly breaking lockdown rules, Mr Johnson said of pupils returning to class: “This is going to be tough.
“What we will do is make sure that we stagger things, we pace things and we work directly with you, with local authorities, to make sure that there is a plan.”
He said the key to fully reopening schools by September “at the very latest” is to “keep pushing down” the coronavirus R value, the rate at which the disease is transmitted.
“That is going to be the most effective way to ensure that not just our schools but all our economy is ready to go back as fast as possible,” he added.
“I acknowledge that the 1 June opening may not be possible for all schools but the government will continue to support and work with the sector so that any schools experiencing difficulties are able to open more widely as soon as possible.”
Downing Street added the date would only go ahead if five tests are passed by Thursday 28 May, which include data to show a “sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rates” and that the change in measures would not trigger a second peak of COVID-19.
As originally revealed by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson earlier this month, the phased reopening will begin with reception, years one and six, nurseries and other early years providers.
Secondary schools, sixth forms and colleges will then provide “face-to-face contact” from 15 June for Year 10, Year 12 and equivalent 16-19 further education students to help them prepare for exams next year.
Guidance for schools returning on 1 June, published by the Department for Education on Sunday, included:
• Reducing the size of classes and keeping children in small groups without mixing with others
• Staggered break and lunch times, as well as drop offs and pickups
• Increasing the frequency of cleaning, reducing the used of shared items and utilising outdoor space
A reminder that PM’s comments just now on lockdown/schools apply to England. The situation in Scotland is set out in thread below. We are making progress against this virus but to avoid a resurgence we must move carefully. And we must maintain trust in public health advice. https://t.co/qwB65uZAjp
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) May 24, 2020
The commitment comes after a row broke out between unions, local councils and the Conservative government over when schools should reopen.
A total of 27 councils – nearly all Labour-run – said on Friday they are either opposed to or cautious about schools opening their doors.
Meanwhile talks between unions and scientific advisers on 15 May – instigated by Mr Williamson to break the deadlock – resulted in teachers’ union NASUWT describing it as “flimsy as best”.
Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson also told Sky News he was prepared to defy government guidance.
He said at the time: “I will only allow schools to let children, teachers and ancillary staff back into schools if it’s safe to do so. This has got nothing to do with disadvantaged children or politics, it’s got everything to do with the safety of children.”
Since then, the talks have been described as a “constructive period of consultation” by the PM’s team.
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On Friday, shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey urged the government to move towards the “test, track and trace” method before reopening schools.
After the press conference, Downing Street confirmed that children, staff and families would have access to testing if they show COVID-19 symptoms.
It added any positive tests would result in a test and trace approach.