image captionFirst day back at school in Doncaster, but there are now face masks in classrooms
Millions of children in England have gone back to school after more than two months studying at home in the latest lockdown.
Most secondary schools have started with a phased return this week, as pupils take Covid tests – and face masks will be worn in classrooms.
Primary schools have opened for all pupils on Monday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the return as an important first step towards a “sense of normality”.
Testing but no exams
This fourth big return to school in England since the start of the pandemic comes with questions about catching up on missed lessons, young people’s wellbeing and a replacement exam system.
image captionSecondary pupils will have three Covid tests in school
Secondary schools are now running regular Covid testing, with pupils taking three tests in school before switching to being tested twice a week at home.
View from the schoolgate: “It’s nice to see my friends”
At Bexleyheath Academy in south-east London, pupils were returning on Monday morning with a mixture of excitement and nervousness.
Tomisin, 15, told the BBC: “I just know that I’m ready for school, because it’s been quite a long time being at home doing online school. It’s nice to see my friends and people that I used to talk to a lot.”
image captionTomisin is glad to get back to school
Tomisin says she feels she has missed some parts of her learning, but is “just hoping I can do my best” in upcoming tests.
Joseph, 15, says he is glad to get back to school as there are many distractions at home: “The telly, phone, family – it’s really easy to get distracted.
“At home I’ve been able to do all my assignments, but there are a lot of distractions at home, so being back at school, you get rid of distractions, it’s really easy.”
But he was a bit nervous about taking a Covid test. “The whole process is a bit nerve-racking,” says Joseph.
image captionJospeph was nervous about doing the Covid test
“But I am excited to get back learning in a more engaging environment.”
Vic, 15, is also glad to be back in school: “I am very excited to be back but there obviously is that bit of nervousness in me, but I feel safe and I know that the school will put my best interests first.”
She says wearing a mask can be difficult but accepts the government guidelines.
“It is tricky because you want to take it off and you want to be able to get a bit of ventilation and you want to be able to talk to the teacher without having to think about the mask.
image captionVic and her mum are ready for “a bit of routine”
“But, if we’ve got to do it then we’ve got to do it – it’s the guidelines so we’ve got to just abide by it.”
Vic’s mother Alison says the school has done everything it can to make the premises safe.
“So I’m happy that’s she’s happy and is ready to return – I think we all need a little bit of normality back in our lives and a bit of routine, so it’s good that we’ve got to this stage I think.”
A survey from head teachers suggested 76% of secondary schools would have a phased return, with different year groups starting on different days, to allow time for testing.
“There will be a full return but it will be from – not on – Monday, 8 March,” said Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union – describing the testing sites in schools as looking like “field hospitals”.
image captionBack to school in Birmingham, with secondary pupils facing a replacement exam system
Face masks are expected to be worn in secondary school classrooms, where social distancing is not possible, at least for the remaining weeks of this term.
image captionPupils in Norfolk lining up for their first day back
Children’s Minister Vicky Ford said face masks would be “strongly recommended”. But they are not compulsory, as some pupils might be “very anxious and nervous” about them, said the minister.
The latest lockdown has seen the cancellation of A-level, GCSE and vocational exams, and pupils will return to study for a new system based on teachers’ grades.
Jules White, head of Tanbridge House School in Horsham, West Sussex, said there would be a mix of “immense relief tied to a little apprehension” and meeting friends would be as important for pupils as getting back to learning.
image captionRyedale School in North Yorkshire will be opening for all pupils from Monday
In his school of 1,500 pupils, testing began last week and the phased return will stretch into next week.
Ryedale School in Nawton, North Yorkshire, tested all its pupils last week and all year groups will return to face-to-face teaching from Monday.
Primary schools will be expected to fully reopen – and pupils will not have to take Covid tests or wear masks.
The challenge would be “supporting pupils socially and emotionally, not just academically”, said Paul Whiteman of the National Association of Head Teachers.
image captionQueuing for Covid tests at the Harris Academy Beckenham
UK chief medical adviser Prof Chris Whitty has said “everything is strongly in favour” of pupils returning to school – with extra safety measures in place, such as testing, the wider use of masks and an early “natural firebreak” of the Easter holidays.
A survey of 6,000 parents from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found widespread support for the return to school – with nine in 10 saying they would have sent their children back even if it had not been compulsory.
But two-thirds of parents were “concerned that their child has lost out on learning”.
A joint letter from teachers’ unions called for “flexibility” for schools over safety measures – and a check during the Easter holidays for any spikes in infections.
Schools have remained open for vulnerable and key workers’ children and about a quarter of pupils have been attending primary schools.
But for many pupils, apart from one day in January before the lockdown, this will be the first week back in school this year.
The ambition is that this fourth return – following the short-lived attempt in January and returns last June and September – will be the last needed.
The government has appointed Sir Kevan Collins as an “education recovery commissioner”, who will begin the process of helping pupils make up for the disruption and lost time in school.
image captionThis is the fourth big return to school in England during the pandemic
Ofsted inspectors have warned that disadvantaged children are more likely to have been adversely affected – and the government has announced £1.7bn to support catch-up schemes, such as tutoring and summer clubs.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for schools to have “catch-up breakfast clubs”.
There have been concerns about children’s mental health during the pandemic – and a study by researchers at the universities of Essex, Surrey and Birmingham reports a “significant rise in emotional and behavioural difficulties”.
- In Scotland, younger primary pupils went back last month – with more primary and secondary years returning from 15 March.
- In Wales, younger primary pupils went back last month, with further primary and secondary groups back between 15 March and mid-April.
- In Northern Ireland, younger primary pupils are returning on 8 March, with some secondary years starting 22 March.
England’s Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the return to school would be a “moment of joy” when students would get back to their teachers and friends.
“I do not underestimate how challenging the last few months have been with some children in class and most at home, but I do know how important it is for all children to be back in school, not only for their education but for their mental health and wellbeing,” said Mr Williamson.