LONDON (AP) — The British government on Tuesday backed away from plans to have all primary school children return to school in England before the summer holidays, following concerns by principals that they could not meet coronavirus social distancing requirements if everyone returned.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson admitted that the goal for England’s approximately 5 million primary schoolchildren from age 4 to 11 was not possible, given constraints related to classroom sizes, the need for social distancing and inadequate numbers of teachers.
“While we are not able to welcome all primary children back for a full month before the summer, we continue to work with the sector on the next steps,” Williamson told lawmakers.
Although many of England’s primary schools have been open this entire spring for the children of key workers — including health care professionals, delivery drivers and journalists — the Conservative government had planned to get all younger children back in stages. Britain’s school year normally runs until late July.
Last week, the very youngest schoolchildren were allowed to return as well as those in Year 6, who are due to go to secondary school come September. The plan was that all others would slowly return over the coming weeks.
“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.
“It isn’t possible to do that while maintaining small class sizes and social bubbles, so we aren’t surprised that the policy has been jettisoned,” he said.
Britain has seen the deadliest coronavirus outbreak in Europe, with nearly 40,700 confirmed deaths. Official statistics released Tuesday suggest that thousands more have died in the pandemic, and the true toll could be over 50,000 dead, second only to the United States death toll.
Even to get to this stage, English schools have had to radically revamp practices and instigate a wide array of changes.
The government wants classes capped at 15 students so that social distancing rules can be followed. But most schools don’t have enough extra space to accommodate smaller groups. Given the small size of many U.K. classrooms, schools have had to limit teaching groups to just 10 children to make sure they stay at least two meters (6 1/2 feet) apart.
Schools have introduced staggered starting and ending times to make sure there’s as little crossover as possible between children in different teaching groups 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 and insist on a change of clothes every day. Some have abandoned uniform requirements. Schools have also introduced regular cleaning of the classrooms both during and after the school day, in addition to a weekly deep cleaning. One-way walking systems have also been put into place around school buildings to limit interactions between groups.
These are profound changes to the way schools operate and there are mounting concerns that the impact will still be reverberating in the next school year, which begins in September.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has conceded that secondary schools in England may not fully reopen even in September.
Amid all the confusion, there are mounting concerns at the educational and emotional damage being wrought on children whose schooling has been interrupted for so long, and how the effective closure of British schools to most children could harm their educational prospects permanently.
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 some students back later this month.
Conservative lawmaker Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons Education Committee, urged the government to reconsider its stance and warned of an “epidemic of educational poverty.”
“I think we’re a strange country in which we turn a blind eye to mass demonstrations all over in every city, we campaign for pubs and cafes to open and yet we say to open schools before September is too risky,” he told the BBC.
Danica Kirka contributed from London.
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