Some teachers have expressed concern that social distancing will be difficult to implement and questioned whether staff should be given PPE. The education secretary says the safety of pupils and teachers is a priority. Meanwhile, one of England's biggest academy trusts says it will go ahead with opening its schools on 1 June. Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis trust which has 35 primary schools, says opposition to reopening is "rather middle class". An alliance of teachers' unions is warning it is not yet to safe to open schools. But Mr Chalke says their advice is "lopsided" and fails to recognise the harm to disadvantaged children from missing school.
The move by the Oasis academy trust follows a week of arguments over the safety of primary schools beginning to return from 1 June. Writing in the Daily Mail, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said it would be "the first phase of a controlled and careful return". "All of us in education have a duty to work together to get children back to school", he said, adding, "The safety of children and their teachers is my number one priority."
'Not forcing anyone to attend'
Mr Chalke, whose schools on average have 45% of children eligible for free school meals, said: "The greatest risks for many of our children are being stuck in a council block, with no fresh air, no exercise, little or no nutritious food." Many of their pupils "live in cramped conditions with little digital access" and so will struggle with schools only operating online, he said. Mr Chalke said the schools would not be "forcing anyone to attend", either pupils or staff, and that he "respects the union's opinion". He said safety measures would be in place, but the "long-term social cost" of not opening will "outweigh any short-term medical risks". This was rejected by Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers' union, who said the "primary consideration is the health and safety of teachers and pupils".
"We want schools to be able to reopen when they can demonstrate that it is safe to do so," he said. The NASUWT is one of nine unions which issued a joint statement calling on the government to "step back" from opening schools from 1 June, because it was still not clear that it was safe. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said it was realistic to expect children to practice social distancing in schools and teachers could play a "really important part" in educating pupils about the practice, as well as hygiene.
He said: "I know the education secretary and his team are talking continually to the unions and to teachers directly as well around making sure that we've got a good, safe environment."
He added it was important schools reopen "not just so that parents can get to work, but particularly... at those age groups it is a really key time for children to be taking in that knowledge - and a few weeks out of school can make quite a big difference".
'The time must be right'
It follows a series of challenges to the Department for Education to publish the scientific advice showing that it would not increase the risk of spreading the virus. "It is important to understand that we're not trying to impede the reopening of schools. We very much want to see children back in classrooms," said Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers' union. "But we have always said that the time must be right, and there must be a clear, and robust set of guidance which ensures that this can be done in a way which is safe."
There is also a call from the Local Government Association for councils to have the power to close schools and nurseries if local clusters of the virus appear. "Councils need to be able to close provision where testing indicates clusters of new Covid-19," said Judith Blake, chairwoman of the association's children and young people board.
In Wales, the First Minister Mark Drakeford has said schools would not open on 1 June.
In Scotland, it is not expected that schools will re-open before the summer holidays.
In Northern Ireland, Education Minister Peter Weir has spoken of a possible phased return of schools in September.