UK Schools Begin Full Return Despite Increase in Virus Cases

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson talks to head teacher Bernadette Matthews during his visit Monday to St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in London, reviewing the steps they are taking to be Covid-secure ahead of children returning in September. (Lucy Young/Pool via AP)

EDINBURGH, United Kingdom (AFP) — Scottish children began attending schools for the first time in five months on Tuesday as leaders across Britain try to kickstart a return to education despite coronavirus cases increasing again. 

Scotland’s devolved government has ordered pupils in different parts of the U.K. nation to return gradually through this week, with all classes set to have resumed fully by next Tuesday.

In neighboring England, where plans to restart schooling in June had to be abandoned following opposition from teaching unions and some parents, the government is adamant kids will return in early September.

But the reopenings come as Britain, which has recorded the highest death toll in Europe from Covid-19 with more than 46,000 fatalities, fears the start of a resurgence.

Officials recorded more than 1,000 new cases in 24 hours for the first time Sunday since June, as a months-long lockdown has been gradually eased in the subsequent weeks.

Restrictions have been reimposed during that time in some local areas in central and northern England, as well as in the Scottish city Aberdeen last week, where pubs and restaurants had to close and travel restrictions were renewed.

‘Impressed and reassured’

However across Scotland, which has recorded more than 19,000 cases and 2,491 deaths, there have been no fatalities from the virus in more than three weeks.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Monday it was “entirely understandable” for children, parents and teachers to have “nerves and anxiety” about the return.

But Sturgeon insisted she was “impressed and reassured” by the preparations schools were taking.

Students in the Scottish Borders region were the first to return Tuesday, alongside some in the Shetland Islands.

Pupils will not be required to wear face coverings or maintain social distancing — sparking concern among some staff. 

A survey of 24,000 educators last week by the Educational Institute of Scotland found that only 18% of respondents were confident that it was safe enough to return.

“Teachers want to see schools reopening… but they are very clear that this has to be done safely,” institute general secretary Larry Flanagan said in a statement.

‘The priority’

Some experts in Britain are questioning whether restarting schools requires the closure of other reopened places, such as pubs. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has responsibility for education in England only, insisted Monday that the current strategy was the “right thing for everybody.”

He said he hoped schools would not be forced to close as a result of the increasing trend for local lockdowns and that it was the “last thing” his government wants to happen. 

“We think that education is the priority for the country and that is simple social justice,” he added.  

The government is reportedly encouraged by a Public Health England study of 100 schools finding little evidence of the virus being transmitted in schools.

“The risks to children from Covid are very low and the risks of school closures we know are very serious,” said Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and a member of a key government advisory group, told The Sunday Times in reference to the probe.

But The Times newspaper said Tuesday the as-yet unpublished research also showed older children may transmit the virus similarly to adults. 

The paper’s front-page story said researchers working on it were “unhappy with the way ministers have used the findings, which have not been fully analysed.”

The Association of School and College Leaders this week suggested schools could adopt a “week on, week off” model to mitigate the risks of a full return.

Meanwhile the National Education Union has provided its 500,000 members with a list of 200 virus-related health measures for their schools, with staff urged to “escalate” any complaints over non-compliance.

Conservative lawmaker Robert Halfon branded the criteria “impossible” to meet.

“It is incredible not one of these 200 nitpicking questions asks the most important thing of all — what’s best for the kids?” he told the Sun on Sunday. 


by Stuart GRAHAM with Charlotte DURAND in London
© Agence France-Presse

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