LONDON – The British government on Tuesday ditched plans to have all primary school children in England return to the classroom before the summer vacation after schools voiced worries about their ability to meet coronavirus social distancing requirements.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson admitted that the goal for approximately 5 million primary schoolchildren from age 4 to 11 wasn't possible, given constraints related to classroom sizes, the need for social distancing and inadequate numbers of teachers.
"We believe this cautious, phased return is the most sensible course of action to take,” Williamson told lawmakers when announcing the change.
However, he said the government would like to see schools that “have the capacity” bring back more pupils before the summer break in July.
Although many English primary schools have been open all spring for children of key workers — including health care professionals, delivery drivers and journalists — the Conservative government had planned to give all pupils the chance to return following months of home learning.
Last week, the very youngest and those in their final year of primary school, who are due to go to secondary school in September, were able to return. The plan was that all others would return in stages.
Williamson said over 50% of primary schools reopened to more children last week and that this increased to more than 70% by Monday.
“The ‘ambition’ to bring back all primary year groups for a month before the end of the summer term was a case of the government over-promising something that wasn’t deliverable,’’ said Geoff Barton, general-secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.
Williamson said secondary schools would still provide face-to-face support for some children from next week, and that exams will go ahead next year.
The U.K., which has the world's second-highest virus-related death toll behind the U.S. at just under 40,900, is generally seeing lockdown restrictions ease.
The government confirmed Tuesday that all nonessential shops in England, such as department stores and electronics retailers, can reopen Monday provided they conduct a COVID-19 risk assessment and can maintain social distancing guidelines so people inside stay at least two meters (6 1/2 feet) apart.
Many are calling for social distancing guidelines to be relaxed. Germany for example, only requires people to be 1-1/2 meters apart. Changes would potentially make it easier for shops to reopen and more pupils to return to school. The government says the required distance is under constant review.
Under current rules, it's clear that getting COVID-ready is difficult, as English schools have found out.
The government wants class sizes capped at 15. Given the small size of many U.K. classrooms, many schools have had to limit teaching groups to just 10 children.
Schools have introduced staggered starting and ending times to make sure there's as little crossover as possible between children, and playgrounds have been divided into sections so groups don't mix.
In addition, many schools are having children eat packed lunches at their desks or in playgrounds, and insist on a change of clothes every day. Some have abandoned uniform requirements.
Schools have also introduced regular cleaning of classrooms both during and after the school day, in addition to a weekly deep clean. One-way walking systems have been introduced around school buildings to limit interactions.
There are mounting concerns that the impact of these profound changes will reverberate into the next school year, which begins in September.
“Government now needs to provide urgent clarity on the anticipated constraints that schools may face in September, so that schools and parents can start to look ahead and plan with greater understanding of the possible disruption,” said Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT.
Amid the confusion, there are worries over the educational and emotional damage to children, and not just in England. Elsewhere in the U.K., Scotland and Northern Ireland have said schools won't be reopening until August, while Wales is making plans to welcome students back later this month.
Conservative lawmaker Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons Education Committee, warned of an “epidemic of educational poverty.”
“Why is it that we can turn a blind eye to thousands of demonstrators, campaign for pubs and garden centers to open, yet it is so hard to reopen our schools?” he said.
Danica Kirka contributed to this report.