UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Monday said it is the country’s “moral duty” to get children back into schools after the COVID-19 lockdown as a matter of priority to safeguard their health and mental wellbeing.
During a visit to a school in east London, he sent out a message for teachers’ unions to work towards getting all school children back into classrooms for the new term starting in September after the COVID-19 lockdown.
“It’s not right that kids should spend more time out of school. It’s much better for their health and mental wellbeing – obviously their educational prospects if everybody comes back to school full-time in September,” Johnson told reporters.
“It’s our moral duty as a country to make sure that happens,” he said, adding that shutting down schools would be the “last thing” the government would want to do in future – indicating that in the event of localised lockdowns, schools are likely to be the last to close.
“Education is a priority for the country – that is simple social justice,” he said.
The government wants a return to classroom schedules within COVID-19-secure guidelines put in place by individual schools, such as staggered opening times and classroom bubbles for student groups to maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“A lot of work is being done over making sure that there’s social distancing, bubbling, staggered start times, all that kind of thing. But basically, the plan is there: get everybody back in September, that’s the right thing for everybody,” he said.
His school visit came as an ongoing Public Health England (PHE) study has indicated that there is little evidence that coronavirus is transmitted in schools.
UK education secretary Gavin Williamson made a reference to the findings, expected later this year, as he urged teachers’ unions to back the government’s plans for a full reopening of schools.
“There is also growing confidence among parents about their children returning,” the minister said.
“This is down to the hard work of school staff across the country who are putting in place a range of protective measures to prepare to welcome back all pupils at the start of term. We have always been and will continue to be guided by the best scientific and medical advice.
“The latest research, which is expected to be published later this year – one of the largest studies on the coronavirus in schools in the world – makes it clear that there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school,” Williamson said.
However, there are still some lingering concerns as the Labour party and some headteachers have called for improvements to the test and trace system to more effectively track the spread of coronavirus.
Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield has called for the routine coronavirus testing for teachers and pupils.
“I think it (testing) needs to be as regular as it needs to be, to ensure that the infection is caught and identified as quickly as possible and then the tracking system can move on from that,” she told Times Radio.
Schools across the UK closed on March 20. On June 1, some began a limited reopening for early year pupils in primary schools, with September marking the cut-off for a wider reopening.
Teaching unions have expressed concern about the lack of a contingency plan if fully reopening schools is shown to bring a significant rise in the coronavirus infection rate.
Meanwhile, A-Level or board-level results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are due on Thursday, which will be based on estimations following exams being cancelled due to the lockdown.
Scotland, where these results are already out, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was forced to apologise for their handling as she acknowledged: “we did not get it right” after results estimated by teachers for cancelled exams were downgraded.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority lowered grades using an algorithm, causing much discontent, with the authorities pledging to look into the issue.
Johnson has admitted “anxiety” in other parts of the UK as the results come in later this week and said he is “very keen that exams should go ahead as normal” in future.
According to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the contagion has infected over 19 million people and killed more than 731,000 across the world.
The UK”s COVID-19 caseload stands at 312,574 with more than 46,000 deaths.