Teaching union chiefs today admitted schools were as ‘safe as possible’ as millions more children returned to classes in England and Wales after six months at home during the coronavirus lockdown.
The National Education Union said schools were seeing a ‘very calm, managed and positive’ return to the classroom as families largely appeared to defy virus fears, with many schools reporting high attendance rates.
However in Scotland more than 100,000 pupils are absent from school, with 117 testing positive for Covid-19 and the attendance rate in the country’s schools – which went back on August 11 – at just 84.5 per cent.
Mary Bousted, joint general-secretary of the London-based NEU, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning: ‘Yesterday for those pupils who returned and today when more will return, it’s a really important day.
Teacher Joanne Conlon with some of her pupils on their first day at St John the Baptist Primary School in Belfast yesterday
Pupils on the first day back to school yesterday at Charles Dickens Primary School in Borough, South London
‘There’ll be lots of nervous children and young people this morning, and I’m sure when they get into school they’ll very quickly be reassured by the routines and be really glad to be back with their teachers and their friends.’
She added: ‘I think that leaders, teachers and support staff have worked really hard to put protocols in place to ensure that it’s a safe as possible return to school. They have worked really, really hard.
Shielding mother ‘has no choice’ but to send her daughter back to school
A woman who has been shielding with an immune system disorder says she feels she has ‘no choice’ but to send her daughter back to school despite fears she will bring coronavirus home.
Jennifer East, from Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, has common variable immunodeficiency, which leaves her vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19.
She feels it is ‘really not safe’ for her 11-year-old Tayla to ‘open the bubble’ when she starts secondary school on Friday. ‘I feel like I have no choice. Like the Government are saying I have to do it or get fined,’ Ms East said.
Jennifer East with her daughter Tayla and husband Scott
The Government has faced calls to scrap fines for parents who do not send their children back due to fears over the virus. The Department for Education insisted it was safe for children to return and said fines would only be used as a ‘last resort’.
However, Ms East said: ‘It’s really not safe, I personally feel, at the moment. I have common variable immunodeficiency so we at home have been in our own bubble for six months. Now we have to open the bubble to a load of schoolchildren too.’
Her daughter will be wearing a mask in classes and private transport arrangements have been made by her school.
Ms East added: ‘They are doing this because of my condition. They will try and help me as much as possible, but I have said that if I feel it’s not working, or think the risk is too high, I will be taking her out of school again. I will just have to face the consequences if that happens.’
‘So we hope that everything will go well, and the signs are at the moment that it’s a very calm, managed and positive return to school – and that’s good.’
However, she added that schools were struggling with the extra costs of cleaning, putting Perspex screens up, and rearranging the school – amid the ‘huge distraction which was the A-level and GCSE fiasco in secondary schools’.
Ms Bousted continued: ‘So one of the real concerns is that this is costing quite a lot, and schools do not have that money in their budget, and that’s a worry – and that will be a continuing worry.’
Yesterday there were beaming smiles at school gates across the country yesterday as thousands of pupils were reunited with friends for the first time in half a year.
Parents spoke of their delight that their children’s education would no longer suffer and they would be freed up to make more trips into work.
Many schools reported low rates of pupil absence, with one academy chain said attendance was 94.3 per cent across its six primary schools and that the absent pupils did not stay away due to Covid-19 concerns.
Meanwhile schools in Leicester, which were among the first in the country to open last week, said attendance was above 90 per cent. Other schools said they felt the vast majority of pupils had returned.
It is too early to tell how successful the Government’s drive to get children back into classrooms has been, with millions more pupils not due to return until later this week or next.
And many of those which opened yesterday are staggering the return of individual year groups to ensure social distancing measures are not overwhelmed early on. But school leaders signalled there were encouraging early signs.
Among those defying their fears at school gates yesterday was mother-of-two Kayleigh Leather, 35. She dropped off her sons Harrison, nine, and Lewis, six, at Leamington Community Primary School in Liverpool.
She said: ‘I was doing cartwheels. I was so ecstatic for the children because they have missed out so much on their education. I find it ridiculous that pubs were able to open before schools.’
Emma Timson, 36, was waiting outside Orchard Mead Academy in Leicester for her son Lewis, 11, at the end of the day.
She said: ‘I was quite nervous this morning, because we’ve been shielding for the past few months as I’m pregnant.
‘So I’ve been thinking about him all day. But the school had planned well, with the staggered starts and other measures like half year group bubbles, and kept parents informed, and it sounds like it has gone well.’
The positive return came after a YouGov poll suggested 17 per cent of parents in England and Wales were ‘seriously considering’ keeping their children out of school over lingering virus fears.
Dinner staff wear face shields as they give out lunch to pupils at St John the Baptist Primary School in Belfast yesterday
Pupils wash their hands as they arrive on the first day back to school at Charles Dickens Primary School in London yesterday
A separate poll by Mumsnet found 46 per cent of parents were ‘anxious’ about sending their children back to school, while 52 per cent were ‘relaxed’. A third said they may pull their children out of school if infections rise.
In a blow for Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, the poll also found 58 per cent did not feel the Department for Education has done enough to reassure families it is safe to send children back.
Over the coming weeks ministers will be keen to avoid the drop in attendance seen in Scottish schools, where more than 100,000 pupils are absent.
Data collected from local authorities there yesterday revealed attendance is now 84.5 per cent, down from 95.8 per cent a few weeks earlier. However, only about a fifth of the absences were recorded as ‘Covid-19 related’.
Mr Williamson yesterday said he was ‘confident’ that preparations put in place would allow a ‘successful return’ for all pupils in England, adding that welcoming children back was a ‘massive milestone’.