COVID: When Will Students Go Back to School…Again?
In March and December 2020, parents (and some pupils) across the country heard the news that they didn’t want to hear, that schools had to close to control the spread of COVID-19. It wasn’t until six months after they closed that many students went back to their classrooms after the Summer holiday. During that period, parents have had to juggle their lives and jobs to accommodate the temporary home-schooling. This was no mean feat and stretching the resources of many. Those of us who can remember the brief period when schools reopened after the first lockdown may remember the blessed relief of knowing that children were back where they should be – learning and with their friends. But this normality was, unfortunately, not long-lived, as cases of COVID-19 increased dramatically in November and December. Since the Christmas break, children across the country have remained at home, with a patchwork of online education being provided. The question now is, “when will children be able to return to school?” In this article, we will discuss what is known of when schools are likely to reopen in the UK.
Wales and Scotland Have Greater Certainty on School Reopening
Unfortunately, despite what anyone says, there is no cast-iron certainty regarding when children and young adults will return to education. But because of the way that decision making is devolved in the UK, Wales and Scotland have greater clarity. It was announced in early February 2021 that the youngest pupils in Wales would be able to return to primary schools on 22nd February 2021. Around the same time, it was announced that Scottish P1-P3 children and pre-school children would return on the same date as those in Wales. Scotland’s main teaching union, the EIS, expressed their reservations on hearing the announcement; “Clearly, any school return remains contingent upon continued progress on community suppression of the virus and that is not a given so we need to see infection levels coming down substantially before the return date can be confirmed”.
Education unions in Scotland and Wales have made it clear that a significant expansion of in-school COVID-19 testing, enhanced PPE, and social distancing will be needed. Some have called for medical-grade masks to be made available to staff as an essential mitigation to control the spread of the virus.
Everything Hinges On 22nd February 2021
It is expected that the reopening of schools in England will lag behind those in Wales and Scotland, and is expected to be on 8th March 2021 at the earliest. Parents across England will no doubt be waiting with bated breath for the announcement on 22nd February 2021, when the Government will outline its plans for school reopening. The Government has been clear that the opening of schools on 8th March will be contingent on “lots of things going right”. In a recent Downing Street announcement, Boris Johnson stated , “The date of 8 March is the earliest that we think it is sensible to set for schools to go back and obviously we hope that all schools will go back”. “I’m hopeful, but that’s the earliest that we can do it and it depends on lots of things going right, and... it also depends on us all now continuing to work together to drive down the incidence of the disease through the basic methods we’ve used throughout this pandemic”.
It must be emphasised that this is not a guaranteed opening date, and it is not clear which years will be able to return even if things go to plan. That said, there is speculation that primary and secondary pupils may return on the 8th March.
While many parents in England would much rather their children return to school immediately after the half-term break, as they will in Scotland and Wales, this is extremely unlikely, especially as the Government have promised to provide at least two weeks’ notice to allow schools to prepare.
Will the Summer Term Be Extended to Help Pupils Catch Up?
There is also the possibility that schools will be required to extend the summer term, reducing the summer holiday period, to allow pupils to catch up as much as possible on their education. Lee Elliot Major, a professor of social mobility at Exeter University believes that ministers will need to get radical with their approach to ensure the pandemic does not “scar a whole generation”. It seems that ministers are listening, and considering various options, including longer terms and longer school days. Plans have been drawn up by the Department for Education (DfE) for how best to allow students to catch-up. Within the plans, Professor Major recommends, “spreading holidays across the school calendar, reducing the long summer break by two or three weeks and adding these to Christmas or Easter breaks or adding to current half terms”. He also warns that this will only be effective if experienced and qualified teachers are on hand to oversee the catch-up activities. There is some concern, however, including by Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, that measures to extend the day and term may be “gruelling” and may have “diminishing returns”. He also explained, “It is hard to see how an extension to the summer term could be done without making attendance mandatory and we would imagine that this would cause uproar from families after a year of Covid restrictions”.
Parents and pupils across the UK are universally fed-up with online learning. Even pupils who were chomping at the bit not to be in school are now missing their friends and their normal routine. Much will depend on what is said on 22nd February 2021, and this will be determined by the data. While it doesn’t look quite like 2021 will be the year of full normality, if children can return to school, it will certainly feel more normal, taking a considerable load from families across the UK.
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