Parents in England will have to send their children back to school in September — or face steep fines.
The U.K. education secretary on Thursday outlined the government’s plans to reopen schools after the summer, first in the House of Commons and then to the public via a Downing Street press conference.
« I am confident that by adopting this carefully-planned return in September we are going to be in the best possible position to recover and rebuild our education system and ensure that none of our children lose out, » he said at the briefing.
The guidance was released in full on the government’s website earlier Thursday. It includes recommendations for schools to stagger start and finishing times, and to divide pupils into « bubbles » of either classes or year groups. Face masks will not be mandatory in schools, though the guidance does indicate that children over 11 should wear a mask or covering if using public transport to get to school.
The Department for Education also makes it clear that attendance will be « mandatory again from the beginning of the autumn term, » with school authorities’ ability to issue fines for absences to be restored after the summer.
However, Labour leader Keir Starmer said pupils should have returned earlier, though he broadly supported the plan.
Starmer told broadcasters: « I want all children back in school as quickly as possible, and certainly by September, and I think that’s achievable. I actually think that many more children could be back now if there had been a better plan and better leadership.
« Get everybody around the table, and let’s implement a plan that will actually work, because there’s a consensus; we want all of our children back in September. That will only happen with leadership, » he said.
Education trade unions were less effusive in their support for the government. Statements released Thursday by the National Association of Head Teachers, Association of School and College Leaders and the National Education Union all demanded a plan B in case there’s a spike in infections or new information comes to light about the virus.
In response to press questions about whether the return of all pupils to school could increase COVID-19 infections, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries said the transmission rate will be lower than if pupils were out of school.
« Schools are actually quite controlled environments, they are just like work places. We should be more concerned with what the teenagers are doing outside school, » she said.
Williamson agreed, telling reporters that « as a father of two daughters, the school has more control over them than I do. »