Reopening of schools marks 'beginning of road back to normality', Education Secretary says

6 March 2021, 06:57

Pupils arriving at Manor Park School and Nursery in Knutsford, Cheshire
Pupils arriving at Manor Park School and Nursery in Knutsford, Cheshire. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The reopening of schools across England for all pupils on Monday marks the "beginning of the road back to normality", the Education Secretary has said.

Pupils have spent months learning remotely and those returning to secondary schools will find safety measures including face coverings in classrooms while rapid coronavirus tests have also been introduced.

Gavin Williamson wrote in The Sun: "We are all looking forward to Monday and I want everyone to enjoy this moment for what it is, and that is the beginning of the road back to normality.

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"Our cautious approach, and the broad range of safety measures, are going to enable children to hit the ground running.

"We will all be helping to boost their learning, but most importantly we can let them get on with just being kids again."

Ofsted's chief inspector has expressed hope the newly introduced safety measures will be needed for "as little time as possible".

The watchdog's Amanda Spielman said she understood the "need for infection controls", but hoped children would be able to return to a more normal environment after a short period.

Her comments came as ministers faced calls to provide more decisive guidance on face coverings in schools across England to prevent potential disputes.

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The Department for Education (DfE) is advising secondary school students and staff to wear face coverings at school wherever social distancing cannot be maintained, including in the classroom.

But the measure - set for review at Easter - is not mandatory, and in primary schools pupils are not being required to wear face coverings when they return to face-to-face lessons.

Education unions have warned greater testing of pupils and the wider use of face coverings "may not be enough" to cope with the increased risk of transmission as schools reopen.

Nine unions, representing school leaders, teachers and support staff, have called for schools to be given flexibility to take local measures to strengthen the safety of students and staff.

Public Health England's Dr Susan Hopkins said the wearing of face coverings in secondary schools will help to reduce the risk of Covid transmission.

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, she said Government guidance was informed by experts reviewing evidence, including on the B117 variant, in relation to the school environment.

Dr Hopkins said wearing masks would go "hand in hand" with testing that schools were advised to carry out, alongside other measures being put in place.

She added: "This is all there to reduce the risk of transmission in schools to allow our children to continue their education safely and to ensure that we have the least amount of rises that we can possibly hope for with increased mixing around the return to schools next week."

The average daily number of Covid cases, hospital admissions and deaths are the lowest they have been since the autumn, according to the Health Secretary.

Matt Hancock painted a positive picture regarding the state of coronavirus infections in England in a press conference on Friday, with the average number of cases - 6,685 per day - at their lowest rate since late September.

That pattern was repeated on Friday, with the Government confirming that, as of 9am, there had been a further 5,947 lab-confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK.

The Health Secretary said the decrease in cases meant the Government could continue with its plan of replacing the lockdown, and all restrictions possibly scrapped by June 21 - with the "protection that comes from vaccines and regular testing".

More than one million people in the UK have now received both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, while almost 21.4 million people have had one dose.