All school pupils in England will return to class from Mar 8, the Prime Minister has confirmed. But the return of students in secondary schools and colleges could be staggered due to the logistics of mass testing.
Boris Johnson confirmed the easing of lockdown restrictions as part of a gradual roadmap for reopening that will see Covid-19 restrictions eased over four steps spread across at least four months.
Mr Johnson told MPs on Feb 22: “All the evidence shows that classrooms are the best places for our young people to be and that’s why I’ve always said that schools would be the last to close and the first to reopen.”
Breakfast and after-school clubs can also reopen, and other children’s activities including sport can restart “where necessary to help parents to work”.
Families and childcare bubbles will be encouraged to get tested regularly.
Mr Johnson has also announced a multimillion-pound catch-up programme for children in England who have faced disruption due to Covid-19.
The news comes as the Department for Education (DfE) announced that summer exams will be voluntary and that the exam boards will set a number of questions in each subject for teachers to use for internal assessments if they wish.
The Education Secretary also confirmed on Feb 25 that face coverings will be worn in secondary school classrooms, stating that it is “a temporary measure” that will be “replaced at Easter”.
All primary and secondary schools have been closed since Jan 5 following the introduction of a third national lockdown in England, and have since offered remote learning for students. Only vulnerable children and children of key workers are currently allowed to attend schools for face-to-face learning.
Students in foundation phase in Wales and those in Primary Years 1 to 3 in Scotland resumed face-to-face learning on Feb 22. From Mar 15, the next phase of school returns in Scotland – including primary and some secondary students – will begin, with all pupils given at least some in-school teaching in that time, before full-time schooling returns after the Easter holidays.
Some primary school pupils in Northern Ireland will return to class on Mar 8, while secondary pupils in key exam years will return to school on Mar 22.
Mr Johnson’s optimism on school reopening is built on the success of the vaccination programme, as more than 17 million people have received the first dose of the vaccine in the UK as of Feb 22.
What is the Government planning to help children catch up?
Boris Johnson has announced an extra £400 million of funding – on top of the £300 million pledged in January – to help pupils make up lost learning time following months of school closures.
As part of the recovery package, summer provision will be introduced for pupils who need it the most, such as incoming Year 7 pupils, whilst one-to-one and small group tutoring schemes will be expanded.
The programme includes a one-off £302 million “Recovery Premium” for primary and secondary schools to support disadvantaged pupils – which could include running additional clubs and activities in the summer, or opting for evidence-based approaches to help children from September.
A further £200 million will be available to secondary schools to deliver face-to-face summer schools.
Department for Education officials are said to be studying the evidence and cost-effectiveness of adding on extra classes at the beginning and end of the day.
The Government has also appointed an education recovery tsar, Sir Kevan Collins, to address the amount of learning children have missed out on during the pandemic. Sir Collins will head up a team of experts who will draw up proposals on how to help children catch up.
In an interview with the BBC, Sir Kevan said: “I think we need to think about the extra hours not only for learning, but for children to be together, to play, to engage in competitive sport, for music, for drama because these are critical areas which have been missed in their development.”
Are there any changes to exams?
The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced on Jan 6 that GCSE, A-Level and AS exams will not take place this summer, with teachers’ predicted grades and internal tests being used to assess students.
The Department of Education announced on Feb 25 that exam boards will prepare a series of test papers for every subject, but teachers will be allowed to choose whether or not to use them to inform their predicted grades.
Should the teacher decide to use the exam questions, students will not need to answer them under exam conditions and teachers have discretion as to whether they are answered in the classroom or at home.
The Education Secretary told the Commons on Feb 25 that it is important to make sure the “system is fair to every student”, adding: “It is vital they have confidence they will get the grade that is a true and just reflection of their work.
“Exam boards will be issuing grade descriptions to help teachers make sure their assessments are fair and consistent. These will be broadly pegged to performance standards from previous years so teachers and students are clear on what is expected at each grade.
“By doing this, combined with a rigorous quality assurance process, are just two of the ways this system will ensure greater fairness and consistency. Quality assurance by the exam boards will provide a meaningful check in the system and make sure we can root out malpractice.”
Grades will be submitted to the exam board by Jun 18 to maximise teaching time, and results days for GCSE and A-Level students on Aug 10 and Aug 12 respectively.
Edexcel’s parent company Pearson has launched a review into British qualifications for 14 to 19-year-olds, saying the pandemic has forced everyone to “adapt and rethink” how to assess young people.
How will testing in schools work?
Secondary school and college students will be tested for Covid-19 four times over the first two weeks of term and they will then be asked to carry out the rapid coronavirus tests at home twice a week.
Pupils in secondary schools and colleges will be asked to use a lateral flow device when they return on Mar 8 – and if they test negative, they will be allowed to resume face-to-face classes. But primary school children will not need to take a rapid coronavirus test.
The Telegraph disclosed that parents will be provided with lateral flow tests to carry out the tests at home.
Geoff Barton, from the Association of School and College Leaders, has said that secondary school reopenings are likely to be “staggered” as pupils retake Covid-19 tests before returning to the classroom.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast on Mar 2, Mr Barton added: “I think for secondaries you’ve got the issue of the testing, which means there is inevitably going to be a bit of a staggered start because those young people won’t be able to go into their classroom until the first of those tests has been done.
“Over the first two weeks they need three of those tests and then the responsibility moves back to the home.
If we see next week for secondary and further education young people as a transitional week of starting to bring them back into school, starting to teach them how the testing works, the week after that, starting the 15th, is going to look as normal as it might do.”
In January, the Government halted plans for daily testing for secondary school pupils and teachers instead of isolation if they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive.
Public Health England said it had “reviewed” its advice and found that the balance between the risks and benefits of a daily testing programme in schools is “unclear”. But it confirmed that the other part of the testing plan – the two tests a week for pupils and teachers – will still go ahead.
Social distancing and ‘bubbles’
When schools reopened last September the Government published 25,000 words of guidance explaining how school children and staff should be kept safe.
So-called “bubbles” were created so youngsters could learn and mix with fellow pupils. Large assemblies or collective worship should not include more than one group, and break and lunch times should be staggered to keep bubbles apart. Ensuring these “distinct groups do not mix” makes it quicker and easier to identify contacts if a positive coronavirus case emerges or someone has symptoms.
The bubbles can be larger, increasing to whole “year bubbles”, if teaching demands require it. Books, games and shared equipment can be used within that group, but must be cleaned if then used by another bubble.
Older children will be encouraged to avoid close contact with one another. Teachers are not restricted to a single bubble, but are urged to stay at the front of any classroom to reduce contact. In class, pupils must sit spaced out side-by-side and facing forward.
The use of the staff room by teachers is also meant to be “minimised”.
If a pupil or teacher has symptoms or a positive diagnosis
Schools must contact local health protection teams immediately so those in close contact with the child can be traced. Currently, pupils in a bubble, year groups and (very rarely) the entire school could be asked to self-isolate. A mobile testing unit could also be sent to a campus.
If a parent insists a child with symptoms should attend school, the headteacher can refuse to take the pupil if they believe there is a threat to others.
Do children need to wear face coverings during class?
Face masks should be worn in the classroom where it is impossible for secondary students to keep two metres apart, the Government has said.
Ministers are recommending the use of face masks in “all indoor environments” in secondary schools, colleges and universities – including during lessons – where social distancing cannot be maintained.
Mr Johnson said the measure would be in place for secondary pupils for the rest of this term to offer “even greater reassurance” that face-to-face teaching is safe.
A school supply of masks is also recommended for youngsters spotted wearing old or damp ones. Primary school children are not required to wear them.