Homeschooling might be paused while half-term is underway, but parents juggling work and childcare still have plenty of questions about when their little ones will be heading back to school.
It seems there’s no one-size-fits-all rule in the UK, with Wales and Scotland due to start a phased return to school on February 22. This is the day Boris Johnson is set to unveil his roadmap for easing England’s lockdown restrictions.
While we wait for the specifics, here’s what we know so far about the great return to school in spring 2021.
When are schools reopening?
As it stands, schools in England are aiming for a return on March 8. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab recently told Sky News: “On March 8 we’re aiming to get schools back. The precise details we need to make sure we set out once we’ve evaluated all of that evidence.”
Raab said the aim is to get schools reopening “in a responsible way” on the 8th, but we don’t have further detail on how this would work. Some reports suggest both primary and secondary schools could open in one go. Larger secondary schools might see a staggered approach to allowing pupils to return.
In Scotland and Wales, the youngest primary school students are due to go back to class on February 22 in a phased return to schools. This is because evidence suggests there’s less transmission in younger children, and also because they find it difficult to learn remotely.
Children of critical workers and vulnerable learners will continue to receive face to face learning at school, and special schools and pupil referral units (PRUs) will continue to remain open where possible.
The Northern Ireland Executive has not yet made its decision on whether pupils can return to school on March 8, the BBC reports.
Is it safe for kids to return?
There is much debate over whether it’s safe for children to return – on the one hand, studies have shown children are very unlikely to develop severe illness if they catch Covid-19 and the risk of death is extremely low.
However, parents of children who came down with Covid-19 last year are worried that letting kids go back could mean hundreds, if not thousands, more children suffer with long-term symptoms of the virus. Parents have told HuffPost UK they feel helpless at how much their children’s lives have been disrupted by the symptoms of long Covid, with some children still sick a year later.
There’s also a concern over transmission – and whether children are bringing the virus back home and infecting their families.
Public health bodies in the UK have consistently said schools do not pose much of a transmission risk. Northern Ireland’s Public Health Agency (PHA) most recently said schools are not a major source of transmission of coronavirus – adding that spread of the virus does occur, but tends to be “small scale”.
International studies suggest there is no consistent pattern of relationship between the reopening of schools and increases in case numbers, either.
But there’s no denying the second wave of Covid-19 near the end of 2020 saw a higher prevalence of the virus among children and young adults. Is this because schools reopened? Experts agree it’s hard to say where the virus is spreading, because people can catch it in their households, in their community or in educational settings.
What tests will be available to schools?
Any children or school workers with symptoms of Covid-19 should self isolate and organise to have a NHS swab test (or PCR test) as soon as possible.
However, there will also be testing available for those attending school without symptoms, to try and identify people who are asymptomatic. It’s thought one in three don’t show any symptoms, which is another reason why it’s hard to say whether the virus is spreading in schools.
People working in schools and colleges across the UK – including students – will have access to lateral flow devices (LFDs), meaning they can take a test for coronavirus twice a week.
The Telegraph reports that schools will initially test pupils on site at the start of term, but then home testing kits will be used thereafter, with parents asked to test their children at home twice a week.
These tests provide a result within 30 minutes and don’t require a laboratory to process, however there has been a lot of debate among scientists over their accuracy and how useful they actually are.
Will term times change?
There has been talk of a possible change to the school year in England to help students recover from having months away from in-school education.
Number 10 Downing Street is reportedly considering a two-week extension to learning in the summer, which would potentially cut into the summer holidays. This holiday time would be redistributed to half-term breaks in the autumn and winter, the Daily Mail reported.
Robert Halfon, Conservative chairman of the Education Select Committee, told the Sunday Times: “We have to reform the school year. There has to be change; things cannot carry on the way they did pre-Covid. From my discussions with No10, everything is up for debate.”
How are children coping?
Learning has been affected by children being off school – one study found year 1 pupils (those aged five and six) have suffered the biggest drop in learning during the pandemic. There are also concerns over the wider development and mental health of children and young people.
Some children are falling so far behind with schoolwork due to lockdowns that they face moving to secondary school with a Year 4 academic ability, one teacher told HuffPost UK. Big differences in how children are being taught during the pandemic, along with the challenges brought by deprivation, are widening gaps in education.
Evidence suggests the mental health of adolescents is particularly affected by not being in school – and these detrimental effects are more prevalent for vulnerable children and young people.
Parenting expert Liat Hughes Joshi said parents should try and keep an open dialogue with their children about how they’re feeling. Well before you speak, do lots of listening to how they feel and what they have to say, she said. “Don’t dismiss their feelings as ‘silly’ or ‘wrong’ – it’s what they feel.”