Is it safe for schools to reopen in the UK?

20th May 2020

On Sunday 10th May, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced to the nation that schools in England will begin to reopen from 1st June 2020 after over two months in lockdown. Mr Johnson’s announcement changed the COVID-19 slogan from “Stay Home, Save Lives” to “Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives”, which was widely criticised as being too vague and could lead to a spike or “second wave” of infections if people become too complacent with social distancing.


One week on, it is the decision to reopen schools that has perhaps caused the most controversy, with heavy criticisms from a number of healthcare experts, teaching unions, and education officials. So far, England stands apart from the rest of the UK as the only country to set a date for schools to reopen, prompting many to question whether it is the right decision for England and for the UK as a whole. In addition, official figures reported that the number of people who have died with the virus in the UK has further increased, which some fear is too high to be deemed safe, especially when juxtaposed with the recent success of countries such as New Zealand and Denmark [1].


On the other hand, it has also been argued that the transition can be made safely and that it is imperative for children’s education and wellbeing. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has defended the plans, reassuring the public that the return will be “cautious” and “phased.” We will see a staggered reopening according to age group, and class size will be limited to no more than 15 pupils. However, the question remains whether or not these restrictions will be enough to mitigate the risk.


The primary concern voiced by critics is, unsurprisingly, public safety. Major teaching unions have spoken out against the plans amidst fears of a second wave of infections. NASUWT, which has around 300,000 members, has threatened to take legal action to defend teachers against being forced back to work, saying teachers ought to be treated like other front line workers. [2]  The union said in a press statement that the government is showing a “lack of understanding” about the risk of spreading the virus from within schools and outwards to the wider community. [3] Their criticisms are backed by two more of the country’s largest unions, the National Education Union (NEU) and Unison who have urged their members “not to engage” with the plans. [4]

The government has of course attempted to alleviate these concerns, with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson having defended the plans to reopen in response to criticisms, emphasising the importance of school for children’s wellbeing and reassuring teachers and the public that the return will be “cautious” and “phased.” [5] There would first be a phased reopening according to year group as well as phased breaks and lunches, to reduce the risk of crowding. Class sizes will be limited to no more than fifteen pupils who will sit apart and be kept in small groups; stringent cleaning and disinfecting measures will also be in place. However, the union groups have said the government’s guidance is “inadequate and incomplete”, fearing that they will be unable to effectively enact social distancing while at work, especially where younger children are concerned [6]. Even one sick person at school could potentially cause a resurgence in infections- just last week in South Korea, over 100 new infections were linked to just one man who visited several nightclubs in the capital, shortly after the country’s decision to ease restrictions and reopen businesses. [7] The country has since been reporting new cases in the single digits after a swift response to the outbreak, but it is worth noting that this is partly due to South Korea’s advanced and comprehensive contact tracing capabilities. [8]  A contact tracing app for the UK is currently in development and will be released “in the coming weeks” – after schools are set to return [9].


Medical professionals have also spoken out in support of the teachers, adding fuel to the already heated debate. The British Medical Association (BMA), the UK’s largest doctors’ union, have said they agree that the number of COVID-19 infections in the UK remains too high to allow schools to open safely by 1st June. BMA council chair Chaand Nagpaul warned that even with social distancing and strict hygiene regulations in place, there has been too much conflicting information from scientific studies to confidently say the risk of a second spike can be mitigated. [10]

Mr Nagpaul also said in his statement that we are in “uncharted territory,” both in the sheer scale of the pandemic and COVID-19’s status as a novel virus. The virus was only identified in December 2019, so we have no contemporary models to act as a foundation for a safe and effective return to normalcy. It also means that we know very little about any long-term effects or complications that could arise. This has been brought to light by reports of a “mysterious illness” affecting children, thought to be linked to this coronavirus. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been investigating the illness after several countries reported cases of children suffering from a condition similar to Kawasaki disease which causes inflammation of blood vessels and, in severe cases, cardiac damage. [11] On 15th May, France reported that a nine-year-old boy has died from a confirmed case of the condition, known as “Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children,” following cardiac arrest. Other, similar deaths are being investigated in London and New York. [12] The WHO is currently researching the rare condition in order to understand its “full spectrum” and understand whether or not there is a link to this coronavirus. [13] [14]  This, of course, may take some time and although the condition is “very rare,” its implications may affect the planned return to school.

The above concerns are being echoed by the rest of the UK, as England remains the only constituent country to have set a date for school to resume. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warns that returning too early could “overwhelm” the NHS and has no plans to consider reopening before the summer holidays, which in Scotland begin in June and ends in August. Ms Sturgeon stated that the current estimated number of active cases in Scotland is “much too high at present to consider the virus under control.” [14] The Scottish government has released its own guidance for return to the “new normal” which suggests a slower phasing-in process than the English model. The paper says a “new approach to schooling” will be necessary and suggests that students will learn through a blend of in-school and online teaching.[15] Both Wales and Northern Ireland have reacted similarly, confirming that none of their schools will be reopening by 1st June. The education minister for Northern Ireland, Peter Weir, has hinted at a September return but asserted the decision will be “criteria-led, not date-led.” [16] Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is concerned about the dissonance between nations, saying “we see the prospect of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland pulling in different directions.” [17]

Meanwhile, Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, argued that governments and unions need to “stop squabbling and agree a plan” so that schools can open as quickly as possible. [18] While she agrees that schools will never be completely safe until a vaccine is found, it is imperative for children’s education and wellbeing to be able to return to school. Michael Gove has also insisted that schools will be safe enough to reopen and that smaller class sizes and staggered pick-up and drop-off times will be sufficient in mitigating the risks.

Indeed, many including Ms Longfield and Mr Gove agree that keeping children under lockdown would be more detrimental than the risks posed by returning to school. It is questioned how effective online learning will be in the long term compared to in the classroom. In addition, many children and teenagers have not socialised with others their own age for over two months, sparking fears for their mental health. It is also crucial to consider those children and young people from difficult home environments for whom school can be a vital source of happiness and stability. [19]

Data from other countries that have reopened schools suggest they have not caused any spike in infections, however, it has not been long enough to confidently assert long-term success [20]. Thus far, Danish schools are open to younger year groups only, and children have been following the phased starts, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing. The BBC interviewed one headteacher who said that while it is difficult on occasion for children to follow the rules, the return has been a success so far.[21] Although it is indeed early days, perhaps the UK can consider such countries’ responses as a model on which to base our slow first steps towards the new normal.