In four weeks’ time, 9 million schoolchildren in England are due to put on their uniforms and return to schools that most of them will not have set foot in since March.
As Covid infections and death rates have fallen, and concern has mounted about the impact of lost learning on a generation of children, there has been a growing consensus among politicians that the reopening of schools in the autumn should be a priority.
On Monday Downing Street reiterated the prime minister’s determination to reopen all schools to all pupils in all year groups in September, while acknowledging that some might not reopen straight away because of localised lockdowns.
But with infection rates starting to rise in England and a tightening of restrictions in some areas of the country, it is clear there are still substantial hurdles to overcome.
Over the weekend leading scientists and the NASUWT teachers’ union raised renewed concerns about the safety of the government’s strategy. The chair of the Sage sub-group on pandemic modelling, Graham Medley, meanwhile raised the possibility that other restrictions such as shutting pubs may be needed for schools to reopen.
As new research confirms, the test-trace-and-isolate system is key to enabling further lockdown relaxations. School leaders and teachers’ unions have long insisted there should be a reliable test-and-trace system in place before schools open more widely.
There are also concerns about how the government’s “protective bubbles” – designed to limit transmission by grouping pupils in classes or year groups – will work in practice, particularly among teenagers who are likely to mingle while travelling to and from school, as well as socially.
School leaders have said the rules around social distancing and school transport remain vague and unworkable. And teachers on social media have mocked the government’s “bubbles” as “colanders” after it was found that official guidance allows teachers and other staff to operate across bubbles, while siblings may be in different groups within the same school.
The wearing of masks in schools also continues to be the subject of fierce debate. Unions have called for teachers, support staff and pupils to be allowed to wear face masks if they want to, and some schools have recommended their pupils wear masks inside school buildings.
The government, however, does not currently recommend the use of face coverings in schools, saying they are not necessary because of other measures in place and because misuse could in some cases increase transmission.
Unions say the policy is out of step with wider public health guidance, and they want teachers and school staff to have the same protection as other workers.
Face coverings are now mandatory in most enclosed public spaces across England, including inside shops and on public transport, for anyone over the age of 11. The NASUWT believes there is a strong case for them to be mandatory for older children in school too.
As for local lockdowns, it is likely that remote learning will continue to play an important part in some pupils’ education.
There is so much uncertainty, but what seems clear is that for returning pupils, school will be very different from how it was before.
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