Millions of children back in class as lockdown restrictions begin to ease

Scientists said it is ‘inevitable’ that there will be some increase in coronavirus cases as schools in England return.

Children arrive at Outwood Academy in Woodlands, Doncaster
Children arrive at Outwood Academy in Woodlands, Doncaster

Millions of children are returning to the classroom for the first time since December as coronavirus restrictions in England begin to ease.

Under the first phase of the Government’s road map out of lockdown, visits to care homes are also resuming from Monday – under strictly controlled conditions.

And the rules around meeting another household have been loosened to allow people to leave home to meet one other person outdoors for a coffee or picnic.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that although it is “only a small relaxation of the rules”, the changes will bring “joy and relief” to families after months of “tough restrictions”.

One scientist advising the Government acknowledged it is “inevitable” there will be an increase in the numbers of cases as schools go back.

Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said a small rise in the R number – representing the reproduction rate of the virus – is less important than the absolute numbers being admitted to hospital and intensive care.

Ministers believe the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccinations should break the link between case numbers and hospital admissions and deaths as more and more people are protected from the disease.

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

Prof Semple said schools are “absolutely” safe for children to return to as surveys showed that even secondary school pupils are far less likely to contract the disease or transmit it than adults.

He said the main risks come from the increased contacts among adults which will inevitably follow.

“The main driver is not the pupil-teacher relationship,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“When we talk about schools, it is the fact that the school brings adults together, whether that’s teaching staff, the domestic staff, the catering staff, and it’s an opportunity for mixing.”

He said the advice for teachers is to wear face masks, while being “really careful” in the common room.

“Their colleagues are more of a risk to them than the children,” he said.

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said it it important that other lockdown restrictions remain in place for at least three weeks as schools return.

“We know that reopening schools will increase transmission, but we should be able to keep the R below one – that’s the key thing to stop the runaway increase of infections,” he told Times Radio.

“The key thing is that children themselves, and parents, don’t think ‘The schools are open, we can relax, we can mix outside of school’ – in a sense, come out of lockdown around the school opening.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is considering longer school days and a shorter summer holiday to help pupils catch up (Toby Melville/PA)

The reopening of schools comes amid warnings by education experts that more damage was being done to pupils by keeping them at home than having them return to the classroom.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said he is looking at proposals, including a five-term academic year, a shorter summer holiday and longer school days to help pupils catch up on learning lost during the pandemic.

Labour is calling for catch-up breakfast clubs before the school day starts, saying that an analysis of official data suggests children have each lost an average of 109 face-to-face school days since the first lockdown in March last year.

Secondary school pupils, who are likely to have their return staggered over the week to allow for mass testing, are being asked to take three voluntary Covid-19 tests on site and one at home over the first fortnight. They will then be sent home-testing kits to use twice weekly.

The Department for Education (DfE) is also advising secondary school students to wear face coverings wherever social distancing cannot be maintained, including in the classroom.

But primary school children are not being asked to carry out Covid-19 tests or wear face masks on their return.

Covid-19 hospital admissions in England
(PA Graphics)

Some children will also return to classrooms in Northern Ireland for the first time since December.

P1 to P3 pupils will return to class but are set to go back to remote learning after two weeks.

First Minister Arlene Foster has expressed hope that those primary pupils will ultimately be able to remain in school.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of care home residents in England will be able to receive indoor visits from a nominated friend or relative as of this week.

Visitors will be tested prior to visits, wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and be asked to keep physical contact to a minimum.

Hand-holding is permitted but hugs and kissing are not, to help reduce the chance of spreading the virus, the Government has said in its latest visiting guidance.

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