Coronavirus: Gavin Williamson seeks to reassure parents over school plan

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Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said “we owe it to the children” to get pupils back in school, as he reassured parents it would be safe.

Mr Williamson said he knew some parents were “very anxious” about reopening schools, but said it would be a “cautious, phased return”.

It follows a row over the government’s plan to begin a phased reopening of schools in England from 1 June.

Teachers’ unions have said the date is too soon to be safe.

Speaking at the government’s daily briefing on Saturday, Mr Williamson said: “There are some who would like to delay the wider opening of schools but there is a consequence to this.

“The longer that schools are closed the more children miss out. Teachers know this. Teachers know that there are children out there that have not spoken or played with another child of their own age for two months.

“They know there are children from difficult or very unhappy homes for whom school is the happiest moment in their week and it’s also the safest place for them to be.”

England is the only UK nation to set a date for schools to start to reopen. Schools in Wales will not reopen on 1 June, while those in Scotland and Northern Ireland may not restart before the summer holidays.

Schools in England closed for most pupils on 20 March, staying open only for the children of key workers and vulnerable children.

The government has planned a phased reopening of primary schools, for children in nursery and pre-school, Reception and Years 1 and 6 at primary school from after half term on 1 June. At secondary school and college, Years 10 and 12 would return first.

But teaching unions have said plans to reopen primary schools do not have adequate safety measures and need to be halted.

Mr Williamson said the government’s approach was based on the “best scientific advice with children at the very heart of everything we do”.

“We have been quite clear all along that we’d only start inviting more children when our five key tests have been met,” he said. “That position has not changed nor will it.”

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Mr Williamson said the government would be “carefully monitoring” the impact of schools reopening

He said school staff could already be tested for the virus and, from 1 June, children and their families would also be able to get tests if they developed symptoms.

“Together these measures will create an inherently safer system where the risk of transmission is substantially reduced for children, their teachers and also their families,” he said.

Mr Williamson said students in years 10 and 12 who were studying for their GCSEs and A-levels “stand to lose more by staying away from school”.

He also praised teachers for “going above and beyond the call of duty” for continuing to teach children of key workers, as well as helping children learn at home.

On Saturday, the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said the government and unions should “stop squabbling and agree a plan” to reopen schools safely.

She said schools should open “as quickly as possible”, and called for stronger safety measures to be introduced, such as regular testing for pupils and teachers.

The government has already issued guidance for schools, saying they should:

  • Reduce class sizes and keep children in small groups without mixing with others
  • Stagger break and lunch times, and school arrival and departure times
  • Clean more frequently, and reduce the use of shared items and outdoor space

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