There is an “ambition” for all primary school children in England to spend a month back at school before the summer holidays, says the government’s updated Covid-19 guidance.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already announced that primary schools could reopen for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6, from 1 June “at the earliest”.
The National Education Union has rejected the plans as “reckless”.
Parents who choose to keep their children at home will not face fines.
Mr Johnson’s televised address on Sunday said if the level of infection remained low enough, some year groups might begin to return to primary school after 1 June.
Further details show an intention to widen this to all primary year groups, including early years – but this is with strong warnings of delays if “insufficient progress is made in tackling the virus”.
The decision to make Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 the first classes to return was “to ensure that the youngest children, and those preparing for the transition to secondary school, have maximum time with their teachers”.
More information is expected from the Department for Education but head teachers have warned that social distancing would make it impossible for all pupils to be in school at the same time, which could mean classes coming to school in rotation or attending part time.
What’s happening in secondary school?
Secondary schools and further education colleges are likely to stay closed until September – apart from pupils with exams next year, who will get more help in addition to their current online lessons.
Schools and colleges are told to “prepare to begin some face-to-face contact with Year 10 and 12 pupils who have key exams next year”.
The DfE will “develop further detail and guidance on how schools should facilitate this”.
Will parents be fined if they don’t send their children to school?
More than 400,000 people have signed an online petition urging the government to give parents a choice on whether they send their children back to school this term.
But it is understood that parents who decide to keep their children at home will not face fines for non-attendance.
At present, parents who are key workers have the option of sending their children to school, but there are no penalties for those who have not taken up places.
This temporary arrangement during the coronavirus crisis will also continue for the year groups going back to school.
“As a mum, I don’t want to face serious repercussions for making a choice I feel affects the safety of my daughter during a global pandemic,” said petition organiser, Lucy Brown.
How many are likely to go back?
When schools were kept open for key workers’ children, there were worries that too many would turn up. But in practice the opposite happened, with lower numbers than anticipated.
The latest guidance says 2% of pupils are currently going to school – and with no fines and lessons likely to be complicated by social distancing, it remains to be seen how many children will return.
But it will give more parents an option for going back to work – and children might be relieved to get out and see their friends again.
What are the teachers’ unions saying?
The biggest teachers’ union, the National Education Union, says it is advising its school leader members “that we are in no position to start planning for wider opening yet”.
“This timetable is reckless. This timetable is simply not safe,” says Mary Bousted, the union’s co-leader.
She said the reopening plans had “stoked teachers’ anxiety and triggered real confusion because the announcement is inconsistent on the importance of social distancing and how or whether it can be achieved in schools”.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said the ambition to return all primary pupils within the next seven weeks was “wildly optimistic, to the point of being irresponsible”.
“School leaders do not want to see classrooms empty for a day longer than they need be – but there is not a school leader in the land who wants to risk admitting more pupils unless it is safe to do so.”
Teachers’ unions have raised doubts about how realistic it is to expect social distancing among young children.
What do parents think?
Many parents on the BBC’s Family and Education Facebook page expressed concerns over safety if school re-open next month.
Kirsty Smith said: “I have a Reception-aged child and then three others in years that aren’t going back.
“First thing my youngest will want to do is give her teacher and friends a hug – she’s five,
“Telling a child ‘no this no that’ is going to make them think they’re constantly doing wrong by doing things that are natural to them.
“They may split the classes and stagger lunch times but they won’t be able to sanitise every pencil, toy, lunch table even before the next child uses it.”
Gurmeet Bhachu added: “No, my child is not going back to school until it is absolutely safe for them and teachers.”
Louise Richards said: “Many children are in families with at risk members. They can’t go back. It will simply disadvantage those and put the rest at risk.”
Suzanne Mattinson said she would not send her child back to school until there was a vaccine,
“If my hand is forced, I’ll remove him formally and home school.”
What’s happening elsewhere in the UK?
In Wales, the First Minister Mark Drakeford has already ruled out following the same timetable as England.
“We’re not going to be reopening schools in Wales in the next three weeks, or indeed in June,” he said.
In Scotland, the government has warned that fully reopening primary schools ran the risk of “overwhelming” the NHS.
In Northern Ireland, Education Minister Peter Weir has spoken of a possible phased return of schools in September.