Back after Easter? What are the options for re-opening schools?

A secondary school student wears mask but most will be learning from home on their return in January.

A child wearing a mask in school. Most children are currently learning at home remotely and look unlikely to return to the classroom before Easter. - Credit: PA

The question of when and how schools should re-open has a simple answer: 'When it is safe to do so".

But with the Government failing to provide an idea of what that could look like, it remains open to interpretation.

With Covid-19 mainly spread indoors and most people told to work from home to protect the NHS, schools have been shut to all pupils except the children of keyworkers and vulnerable children since January 5.

And while there is an exceptionally small risk of children dying from Covid-19 Boris Johnson has said schools are "vectors of transmission".

Originally it was proposed schools would re-open after the February half term but that now looks uncertain while infection rates, although falling, remain high.

Many parents struggling with remote learning could face many more weeks at home with their children, although calls are growing for them to re-open earlier.

A pupil in class but many children will be learning from home due to school; closures. Picture: PA I

In-person teaching in a classroom is something most children have not experienced since before Christmas. - Credit: PA

Easter reopening

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Schools were due to reopen in mid-February. However, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said they may not return until after Easter.

Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday (January 24), he said: "Of course I hope schools go back after Easter and the vaccination programme is going fast.

"But we've got to make sure that we get the cases down and we've got to protect the country from new variants coming in from abroad."

However the prospect of keeping classrooms shut for longer is raising concerns about the greater impact on mental health, learning and social inequalities as the risks are balanced, and calls are being made for them to open sooner.

A phased return

It is understood the Department of Education is looking at the possibility of a staggered return as happened at the end of the first lockdown, with early years and those who would have been facing exams in the summer among those who could be brought back first. 

Deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries told the Education Select Committee on January 19 that it was "likely" that there would be "some sort of regional separation of interventions" for reopening schools.

GCSE and A levels have been cancelled and the exam regulator Ofqual is now consulting on how pupils will be assessed.

Vaccinating school staff

Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee, told the Guardian that the "whole engine of the state" must do everything possible to get our schools open after half-term, even if it meant priority vaccinations for teachers and support staff in what he termed "an epidemic of mental health problems and educational poverty."

He added: “This is putting enormous pressure on parents and families, many of whom have to give up their livelihoods to look after their children at home. With all the laptops in the world, you still need motivation from parents and when they are working that is very hard, especially with younger children.”

Matt Hancock has been reported as saying teachers had "a good shout" at being a priority group in the next wave of vaccinations. 

Vectors of transmission?

Boris Johnson said on the announcement of closing schools: "I want to stress that the problem is not that schools are unsafe to children.

"The problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households."

The evidence however is unclear.

A study by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) found “no evidence of differences in the positivity rate between primary and secondary school teachers, other key workers and other professions”,  but the findings have been disputed and do not cover the new variant.

On Monday (January 25) the ONS released its first report on Covid-related deaths by profession since June, which did not show teaching as among the higher risk jobs.

Overall, the nature and scale of Covid transmission in schools is still said to be poorly understood. Although there is a lower rate of pupil infection in primary schools, studies have shown a higher rate of teaching absence leading to more pupils being off, probably to do with the close-up nature of the setting.

When will we know?

The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has said schools will be given a minimum of two weeks’ notice to plan a return of pupils.

He is hoping to be able to give teachers and parents an update on the roadmap for schools’ return this week.

What parents say

Understandably most parents want their children to return when it is "safe".

Most responding to this newspaper's question about when children should go back said it was too early to tell, and that they wanted to see infection rates drop further before in-person teaching resumed.

One person said: "You can’t set a date, we have to adapt and get on with the work at home, it may not be the same and not everyone is receiving the same education but it’s not safe to be in school before Easter when the new strains are about."

Another said: "You can't put a date on a virus."

Vaccination was also an issue with some parents wanting to see all teachers get the jab.

Overall people agree that the best way to make it safe for schools to re-open is to drive down infections among the wider public, which can only happen when people rigorously follow the rules.

There are no current plans to offer children the vaccine.