Government scientific advisers are examining the impact of letting children in their final year of primary school return to classrooms from 1 June, the Guardian has learned.
Boris Johnson is due to announce next Sunday that year six children, aged 10 and 11, will be the first cohort allowed back into schools since he announced their closure on 18 March, to be closely followed by years 10 and 12, in their final year of secondary school and sixth-form college.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) is said to be focusing on allowing back older primary school children initially, with the year group deemed a priority because of their need to transition to secondary school in September.
Downing Street confirmed that 1 June after the half-term holiday was its target – subject to the latest data on the spread of Covid-19 – and that the prime minister would make a significant announcement on Sunday offering a roadmap out of the lockdown. Sage is expected to meet on Tuesday.
Both Johnson and Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, made public comments on the need for schools to quickly reopen in some form.
“One of the things we want to do as fast as we can is get certainly primary schools back. It’s not going to be easy but that’s where we want to go. It’s about working out a way to do it,” the prime minister told the Sun on Sunday.
Drakeford said schools in Wales could also reopen at the beginning of next month. “Our advice from the trade unions and from the local education authorities is that you will need three weeks as a minimum from the point that we decide to do that, to when schools can reopen, so we are talking about the beginning of June,” he told the BBC.
But Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser who has set up an alternative experts’ group to rival Sage, warned that school reopening would have to be “watched very carefully”. King said he thought June was too early but wanted to discuss the issue with his expert panel on Monday.
The government has been in talks with teaching unions in England over how and when to restart classroom learning. Schools have been using distance learning at home for pupils, with the children of key workers and those classified as vulnerable or with special needs still able to attend in person – though only around 2-5% have taken up their places.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), which represents most primary school teachers, called on the government to detail how it would protect children, teachers and families.
He said: “While we all want to see a return to some sort of normality, the NEU believes it’s really premature to talk about a June return date. Instead, the government should be providing evidence about how this can be safe, how many more fatalities would we expect to see amongst school staff and parents and how these can be prevented or minimised.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said parents and the public wanted a decision made on robust scientific evidence, particularly on infection and transmission rates for different age groups. Last week a study from Germany found that children were as likely to spread the coronavirus as adults.
“There will be huge practical difficulties to solve, for example the much reduced workforce available due to illness and shielding, and the difficulty of achieving social distancing in schools especially amongst the very young and on the school gate,” Whiteman said.
Sharon Waldron, the head teacher of Stonham Aspal Church of England primary school in Suffolk, said she favoured rotating year groups into schools for a week at a time, starting with year six in the first week after the May half-term holiday.
“I feel schools will try their best to implement a way through this situation whatever is asked of them, but I worry that if the plan is too much, too fast we could see a few terrible scenarios: increased rate of R, increased deaths of children and school staff,” Waldron said.
Several countries, such as Austria and Denmark, have moved to partially reopen schools as coronavirus fears have receded. But in some of the worst-hit areas of the globe, including Italy and parts of the US, schools will remain shut until the end of summer.
Any decision by Johnson would only apply directly to schools in England. Education policy and funding is devolved to national administrations, meaning schools in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland can reopen independently of what happens in England.
Eithne Hughes, director of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said: “We would caution against fixing a date in stone at this stage, and to make sure the conditions are right first of all. We are happy to plan towards a proposed date, but we would urge that it is clearly stated from the outset that it is moveable if more time is needed.
“Exactly how this is managed will need to be guided by public health and scientific advice to ensure that pupils, parents and staff can have confidence that it is safe to return to schools. This will be a complex and difficult task, and there is a great deal of work to do to get this right. That is why the date of reopening must be kept under review.”