Almost every primary school in England is set to reopen on Monday in defiance of the biggest teaching union.
Most head teachers will accept fewer children than ministers want, however. The reopening will boost the government, which has spent much of the past week defending Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief aide, who was accused of breaching lockdown rules.
The prime minister announced this month that he wanted all children in nursery, reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to return on June 1.
The demand was met with anger by the National Education Union (NEU), which has 450,000 members. Mary Bousted, its joint general secretary, said that the date was “not viable — it is not practical, it is not ethical, we won’t do it”. Other unions took a similar stance.
A new poll, conducted by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), found that nine out of ten members intended to open their schools. Three in four will ignore government guidelines about which children should return, according to the survey of 2,000 heads.
Some are welcoming back reception and Year 1 children, but not those in Year 6, while others are doing the opposite. Others will operate a rota by which some pupils will come in on some days and the rest on others.
The government has said that social distancing of two metres is not required for primary pupils as long as classes are no bigger than 15 and groups of children do not mix with others. However, many schools are preparing to keep children two metres apart in the classrooms if they can. Some have also supplied masks and gowns to key staff, despite the government advising that PPE was not necessary.
John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the lifting of some lockdown measures was risky. “I think the reproduction number is only just below one and so there’s not a lot of room for manoeuvre and so small changes can put that reproduction number up above one,” he told Sky News.
Professor Edmunds said: “I think the other more important thing is that we still have a lot of cases here in this country. The number of infections that we have is about 8,000 new infections every day in England alone.”
Peter Horby, of the University of Oxford, said that the lockdown should not have been eased until the NHS Test and Trace system was fully operational. Professor Horby told the Today programme: “We are entering a period where there is a risk of increasing transmission, but we don’t yet have that safety net fully in place. Returning to a situation where we lost control again is far worse than another week or two of social measures.”