UK schools start to reopen despite increase in virus cases

uk schools
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacts during his visit to The Discovery School in Kings Hill, south east England on July 20, 2020. Source: Jeremy Selwyn/Pool/AFP

Scottish children went back to school for the first time in five months on Tuesday as leaders across Britain try to kickstart a return to education despite a resurgence in the number of coronavirus cases.

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

In England, where plans to restart schooling in June had to be abandoned following opposition from teaching unions and some parents, the government is adamant that children 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, could be witnessing the start of a resurgence.

uk schools

Pupils are returning to UK schools later this week after months of shutdown to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. Source: Andy Buchanan/Pool/AFP

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

Restrictions have recently been reimposed in some local areas in central and northern England, as well as in the Scottish city of 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.

Last week, a survey of 24,000 educators by the Educational Institute of Scotland found that only 18 percent 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.

UK schools: Risks ‘very low’

Some experts in Britain are questioning whether other public spaces, such as pubs, ought to be closed again before schools can reopen.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has responsibility for education in England only, insisted that “we will get schools back” and that he was “very impressed” by preparations to mitigate against the virus in the classroom.

“We have got to stick to our discipline — so in schools, they have some very well thought through plans for how to manage it,” he said, warning that further local outbreaks and counter-measures were inevitable.

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

uk schools

Children will return to UK schools despite resurgence in cases. Source: Lucy Young/Pool/AFP

“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 to adults.

The paper’s front-page story said researchers 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 and staff are being urged to “escalate” any complaints over non-compliance.

Conservative lawmaker Robert Halfon branded the criteria as “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.

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