Speaking at the daily Downing Street briefing on Sunday, the prime minister said that teachers and parents could ‘plan in earnest’ for school to resume in just over a week, although he acknowledged that many schools would not be ready to do it by that date.
The Government has said it will make a final decision on reopening schools on 28 May, the date set for entering phase two of ending the lockdown.
At the Downing Street briefing on Sunday, Mr Johnson said, 'Today I can confirm I do believe we will be in a position to move to step two of our plan. As part of step two, we set out plans for a phased reopening of schools because the education of our children is crucial for their welfare, their health and their long-term future and for social justice.
'In line with the approach being taken in many other countries, we want to start getting our children back into the classroom in a way that is as manageable and as safe as possible.'
However, the country's biggest teaching union the National Education Union (NEU) remains ‘unconvinced’ that it is safe to open schools more widely on June 1 after independent evidence revealed that the risks to children staff and others could be ‘halved’ by delaying opening to 15 June and reduced yet further by later dates.
The Independent Sage committee, a body of 12 scientists and experts chaired by the former UK government chief scientific adviser Sir David King, and set up in parallel to the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said 1 June was too soon for children to return to school.
Sir David said on Friday, ‘It is clear from the evidence we have collected that 1 June is simply too early to go back. By going ahead with this dangerous decision, the government is further risking the health of our communities and the likelihood of a second spike.’
It is ‘hard for schools and staff’ to rely instead on the prime minister’s assertion that such wider opening would be safe, the NEU said, especially when key details regarding the Government’s proposal to track, trace and isolate have not yet been put forward.
The NEU's list of five tests for the Government before schools reopen, include much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases; a national plan for social distancing; testing; a whole school strategy, and protection for the vulnerable.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU said, ‘The NEU does not agree that it would be right for primary schools to open more widely on 1 June. We once again call on the Government to engage meaningfully with the education unions on these matters. We stand ready to talk to the Government about how our five tests can be met and then how we can then proceed to a safe wider re-opening of schools.’
Commenting on the report on school safety from Sir David King, Unison head of education Jon Richards said, ‘Ministers need to heed these concerns, stop doggedly pushing schools to meet the arbitrary 1 June deadline, and ensure proper tracking and tracing is up and running first.’
Results of a survey of more than 45,000 school support staff, undertaken by UNISON, found that workers’ confidence in their own school’s ability to be ready for a wider opening in June was low. Just over three-quarters, 77 percent, didn’t feel their school would have the resources to cope with the extra responsibility of putting health, safety and risk assessments in place in time.
Of those with school-age children, 95 percent said they didn’t feel it was safe to send them back to school. Unison is concerned that because support staff tend to be older, are disproportionately from the BAME community and come from more disadvantaged backgrounds, they are more at risk from the virus.
Meanwhile, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said that the Government is ‘right’ to acknowledge that bringing schools out of lockdown will need flexibility.
He added, ‘We will take the prime minister at his word that schools will be allowed to react to their own local situations and will not be forced into opening or penalised if proceeding with appropriate caution. We note that the final decision on bringing schools out of lockdown is still to be made on 28 May.’