Full September return unlikely, with schools warning: ‘it’s not business as usual’

Michael Savage
Photograph: Matthew Chattle/REX/Shutterstock

Schools will not be fully reopened by September and parents should prepare for sudden closures as new coronavirus outbreaks occur, headteachers are warning.

Ministers have asked primary schools to reopen for reception, year 1 and year 6 children tomorrow, as part of a loosening of the coronavirus lockdown. Many schools have signalled they will only reopen to a fraction of those pupils as they struggle to adapt to smaller classes and reduced staff. Secondaries are set to begin opening in a fortnight.

However, school leaders are warning that a full return to school is still unlikely to be in place by the start of the next academic year, while local lockdowns will mean gates could close at short notice.

“This will have to be about managing expectations, because it’s not going to look like business as usual, from the first of June or the 15 of June,” said Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). “Frankly, it’s not going to be business as usual from the first of September either. There is no way that you’re going to have all children in our schools back from September. This is going to be a kind of blended approach. And it will be the case that parents will have to accept that in some areas, schools will then suddenly be told that they need to close down, as we have already seen.”

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On Friday two trusts that run schools in north Somerset said that they were delaying reopening because of the closure of the Weston General Hospital in Weston-super-Mare last Monday following its spike in coronavirus cases.

Barton said this would mean a greater roll-out of digital learning and new equipment for disadvantaged children. “We know that the government has made some effort to get some kit, but frankly it’s not enough.”

Primary school pupils are not required to keep two metres apart, but need to remain in small groups. A survey of 2,000 school leaders by the NAHT headteachers’ union found 72% were planning to bring back year 6 tomorrow, 71% reception class and 62% year 1. However, concerns remain high among staff. Two-thirds (64%) are expecting behaviour to be a challenge, according to a TES Global poll.

There are also concerns about school support staff. Jon Richards, head of education at the Unison union, said many remained “incredibly anxious” and that some teaching assistants were being asked to cover for teachers. “Moving around between different groups of pupils could increase transmission risks,” he said. “It’s too much, too soon. Keeping staff, pupils and families safe and avoiding second spikes in their communities is paramount.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said: “While most school leaders have planned to increase the number of pupils attending in the summer term, they will be using the flexibility they have been given, which we support.

“The government needs to explain to parents and families how the actions they take outside of the school gates could have an impact on the safety measures schools are putting in place.”