Return to school will ‘mark moment of joy for millions’, says Education Secretary

Schools: Geoff Barton discusses pupils wearing masks

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The Prime Minister hailed the “truly national effort to beat” coronavirus, with schools marking the first phase of lockdown easing. The government has announced that 57 million tests have been delivered to help keep on top of Covid, with a million tests taking place last week alone. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson thanked the efforts of children and their families and said it was vital they were back in the classroom.

He said: “Monday will mark a moment of joy for millions of people across the country – from the students going back to class to the teachers who can’t wait to get them back – as young people walk through their school and college gates and are reunited with their 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.

“Over the last few days I’ve been visiting schools and speaking to staff who have been preparing for the full return and their sheer dedication and selflessness has shone through.

“I’d also like to thank children, young people, their families and carers for their patience and resilience in the face of the challenges the pandemic has posed.”

Boris Johnson said the re-opening was thanks to the national efforts – but urged families and children to remain cautious and not to undermine the work already done. 

He said: “The reopening of schools marks a truly national effort to beat this virus. It is because of the determination of every person in this country that we can start moving closer to a sense of normality – and it is right that getting our young people back into the classroom is the first step.

“We are being cautious in our approach so that we do not undo the progress we have made so far and I urge you all not to give up on your efforts to keep your families and others safe. Get the vaccine, get tested, and remember that we are all in this together.”

Over the last week many secondary schools and colleges started inviting students for their first rapid lateral flow tests.

Schools and colleges have discretion on how to stagger the return of their students over the next week to facilitate testing and their safe return to the classroom. Schools in Scotland and Wales were partially opened last month.

After three initial tests on site students will be provided with two rapid tests to use each week at home.

Twice-weekly lateral flow tests will be provided to all adults in households with children in schools or college. They will also be offered to adults working in the wider school community. 

Secondary school and college students have also been asked to wear face coverings as an additional safety measure through to Easter.

The government has pledged an expansion of small group tutoring across all age groups as part of a £1.7b package to get education back up and running.

The return to school comes as it emerged nearly a third of parents think it will take at least a school year for their child to recover learning lost during the pandemic.

Around two in three parents are concerned that their child has missed out on learning as a result of school closures over the past year, an Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) survey has found.

Among the parents concerned about learning loss, almost a third think recovery will take a school year or more – and 9% of secondary school parents think that their child will never make up for the effects of the pandemic.

Child experts welcomed the return – but warned there were too many conditions in place for youngsters and accused the government of “failing to put children first and prioritising the worries of adults”.

Masks and repeated testing were key concerns.

Ellen Townsend, a professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham said both interventions could do “more harm than good”  and  add physical and mental risks to children who have already missed out on the benefits of proper schooling.

She said: “Countless psychologists and educational specialists have asked the government to focus on the social and emotional aspects of going back to school. 

“Masks will make this much harder as they impair communication and make it harder to reconnect. “Regular testing is also likely to be damaging and a constant reminder to the child that they might be a carrier of the disease which will make many extremely stressed or more apprehensive.”

She said evidence for mask wearing in schools to prevent Covid was flimsy – but that the harms were obvious.

She said: “Children are utterly desperate to go back. However these measures such as mask wearing and testing have been imposed with a total lack of impact assessment. 

“There is growing evidence masks have a negative impact on children’s learning, and on their physical and mental health. It feels like we’re not putting children first. We are putting the worries of adults first and I think that’s wrong.”

The lateral flow tests have also faced criticism, because their results – false postiives and false negatives – are said to be unreliable. 

Jon Deeks, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, said: “The department for education has put out appalling misinformation by saying these tests will make schools safe. They cannot be used to rule out infection today or tomorrow. 

“This test is not fit for this purpose.”

Professor Sheila Bird, a member of the Royal Statistical Society, said false positives were “very likely” and suggested every positive test of a pupil be checked with a more reliable PCR test.

She told the BBC: “In the present circumstances when infection incidence is low, the false positive rate with lateral flow tests remains to be absolutely determined in the context of schools but may be between one and three per 1,000 children.

“So to differentiate a false positive from a true positive is to do that PCR confirmation.”

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