England’s 8million state school pupils are today flooding back to full classes for the first time since December.
In the national lockdown, only vulnerable or key workers’ children could attend in person with the rest learning at home.
Now all schools are opening to all pupils in the same week in Step One of Boris Johnson ’s roadmap out of lockdown.
Secondary pupils will get twice-a-week tests and be told to wear face masks in the classroom to slow the spread.
But worried unions had wanted a phased reopening amid fears it could lead to a rise of Covid rates in the community.
Ministers insist the reopening will be “irreversible”, even if the R number goes above 1. But local closures could still spring into action if there’s a local spike.
Here’s what you need to know.
Which schools are going back when?
All state schools in England are being told to welcome back all pupils from today, Monday 8 March.
For primary schools, this should mean all pupils return to classrooms today, but for secondaries it takes a little longer.
This is because of the need to test all secondary pupils for Covid-19 first (see below).
Secondary schools have been told they can phase the return of pupils over this week, but it may take even longer.
Heads have been told to prioritise getting Years 10 and 13 back into the classroom first.
Pupil referral units and other alternative provision should also return, as should special schools, sixth forms, colleges, 16 to 19 academies and boarding schools. Independent schools are asked to follow similar guidance.
Pupils and staff who were “clinically extremely vulnerable” and told to shield should not return until the end of March at least. However, some children in this situation have been removed from the shielding list since last year as they are deemed at lower risk than first thought.
Do pupils have to wear masks in class?
In secondary schools yes, in primary schools no.
Secondary pupils were already being asked to wear face coverings in communal areas and corridors.
Now, in a key change, government guidance also says they should be worn “in classrooms or during activities unless social distancing can be maintained”.
This does not apply to situations like PE lessons where they would impact “exercise or strenuous activity”.
Pupils are exempt if they cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical impairment or disability, illness or mental health difficulties, or if they speak to or provide help to someone who relies on lip reading, clear sound or facial expression to communicate.
The rules will be reviewed during the Easter holidays and could be extended or scrapped.
Masks are not compulsory by law but pupils who are not exempt will be “strongly encouraged” to wear them.
Schools are told to keep a “small contingency supply” of masks for pupils whose face coverings are forgotten, unavailable or dirty.
Children in primary schools “should not wear face coverings”, the guidance says – partly because primary-age children pose less of a risk and partly because of the dangers of using face masks improperly.
How will Covid testing work?
Primary pupils are not being asked to take regular Covid tests, but secondary pupils are.
Over the next fortnight, secondary pupils will take three rapid “lateral flow” Covid tests under supervision at school. These should each be three to five days apart.
Once the first test comes back negative, pupils can return to the classroom.
Secondary pupils will then be given home “lateral flow” test kits to take at home twice a week, for example between waking up and setting off for school. They take 30 minutes to give a result.
They must report their result to NHS Test and Trace online or over the phone and share the result with their school – even if it is negative.
Like masks, taking regular tests is not compulsory by law, but is “strongly encouraged” to keep others safe.
The problem is that parents must give their consent, and many heads are reporting difficulties in getting consent forms back.
Do I have to isolate if my kid tests positive?
If any test comes back positive, that means the pupil, their entire household and anyone in their support or childcare bubble must isolate at home for 10 days from the date of the test.
If the pupil was suffering one of the three main symptoms of Covid, the 10-day period started when symptoms did.
Government guidance says: “Their isolation period includes the day symptoms started for the first person in their household, or the day their test was taken if they did not have symptoms, whether this was a Lateral Flow Device (LFD) or Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test), and the next 10 full days.
“If a member of the household starts to display symptoms while self isolating they will need to restart the 10 day isolation period and book a test.”
England’s lockdown roadmap at-a-glance
March 8: Schools reopen, up to two people can meet in the park for a coffee or picnic, and hand-holding care home visits can resume with one named visitor after tests and PPE.
March 29: Outdoor socialising rules relaxed so up to six people or two households (whichever is larger) can meet outdoors. Golf, tennis, outdoor organised sport and lidos resume. Stay at home order ends but people still advised to stay local and overnight stays not allowed.
STEP 2 – April 12 at the earliest: Non-essential shops, hairdressers, gyms, and outdoor areas of pubs and restaurants reopen. No curfew or ‘Scotch egg’ rule but punters must stay seated and obey general rules on gathering sizes. Review to report back on possibility of foreign holidays but they’re still banned at this point. Driving lessons resume, and wedding guests up from 6 to 15. Self-contained domestic holidays allowed with your own household or bubble only.
STEP 3 – May 17 at the earliest: Outdoor gatherings limit lifted from 6 people to 30. Indoor gatherings of up to 6 people or two households, and overnight stays allowed for the first time. Review to rule on whether you can hug friends and family but general social distancing remains. Foreign travel may be allowed. Indoor areas of pubs and restaurants reopen, as do hotels and B&Bs. Stadium events and theatre can resume at reduced capacity. Weddings limit lifted from 15 to 30, receptions allowed along with Bar Mitzvahs and other life events. Saunas and steam rooms reopen.
STEP 4 – June 21 at the earliest: Government hoping to remove all remaining legal restrictions – and reopen nightclubs and standing-only gigs – but will depend on review of wider social distancing rules and of vaccine and testing passports. Masks and hand-washing instructions may remain as may the two-metre rule in some situations or a testing regime. For a full guide click here.
What about ‘false positives’?
Here’s where it gets complicated.
The Children’s Minister has said pupils (and by extension their families) must isolate after a positive result – even if a second test comes back negative later on.
There have been concerns lateral flow tests are not as accurate as PCR tests, which get sent off to a lab for analysis.
For this reason, any pupil who tests positive in a “rapid test” they take at home from March 22 will also take a PCR test to “confirm” the result.
Yet Children’s Minister Vicky Ford has now said this second result will not actually change whether pupils have to isolate.
She said even if the PCR test comes back negative, pupils will need to keep isolating for the full 10 days from the date of their lateral flow test. She told the BBC: “They should not take the risk. We all want to make sure that we can keep Covid out of the classrooms here.”
Rapid tests done at school between now and March 22 will not have follow-up PCR tests to confirm the result.
What’s the defence of this rule on false positives?
Experts have repeatedly raised concerns about lateral flow tests’ accuracy.
However, most of the concerns are that they miss many positive cases – what’s known as “false negatives”.
Government advisors insist the number of “false positives” – people testing positive when actually they are Covid-free – is very low.
Dr Susan Hopkins of Public Health England told the BBC yesterday: “The risk of false positives is extremely low, less than one in a thousand.
“And we would expect that that would be the same risk with PCR tests. No test is perfect. And a test that revealed less than one in a thousand false positives is avery good test.”
This would suggest fewer than one in 1,000 pupils who are Covid-free will be wrongly told to isolate with their families.
However, even a proportion as low as this can still translate into a large number of actual children when there are 3.4million secondary pupils in England, all taking tests twice per week.
Sheila Bird, a member of the Royal Statistical Society, last week suggested false positives could end up being more than half of total positive results if the number of actual positives in the community is very low.
Her paper, as quoted by the Sunday Telegraph, said: “While the usual concern with LFTs is false negatives, when infection-prevalence is low there is also a risk that the majority of ‘positive’ tests could be false positives.”
Will schools shut if the virus spins out of control?
Ministers insist they want the reopening of schools to be “irreversible”, and classrooms would be the last to shut.
They have also confirmed schools will remain open nationally even if the R number tips back over 1.
This is because, with the vaccine rolling out, high case numbers are less likely to translate into very high deaths.
However, Boris Johnson has not ruled out having to go backwards with his lockdown roadmap if four tests are not met – for example, the danger to the NHS or the spreading of a new, vaccine-resistant variant of Covid-19.
The Department for Education also has a dormant “contain framework”, last used in January, which can be used to close schools in a local area if there is a local outbreak. It’s understood it is still available to spring into action if needed.
What plans are there for pupils to catch up?
Separate to today’s reopening, the government’s catch-up tsar Sir Kevan Collins is looking at an 18-month programme including the possibility of longer school days, shorter holidays and five-term years.
As part of the recovery package, secondary schools have also been asked to deliver some summer teaching and the National Tutoring Programme will be expanded.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “We’ve asked Sir Kevan Collins to leave no stone unturned. For us, we see this as one of those moments a little bit like the 1944 Education Reform Act that came out of the Second World War.”
He added: “It’s not just all going to be in one day when it’s all announced, there’s going to be a whole series of actions we are going to undertake to improve the life chances and education of children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, but actually all children.”
Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an extra £400 million of funding – on top of the £300 million pledged in January – to help pupils in England make up lost learning time.
But an IFS poll found almost a third of parents 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.
And Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said ideas like five-term years or longer school days have not been a “long-standing success in the past”, adding: “I don’t think many of those have persisted”.
She said kids have been “lonely, bored, miserable” in lockdown and should get the “full ration of schooling”, but the government must “learn from” experiments in the past.