Boris Johnson Urged to Open U.K. Schools Slowly to Avoid Virus Surge

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The U.K. government is facing pressure from scientists and teaching unions to reopen schools slowly next month, amid fears that getting all pupils back at once could fuel a resurgence in the pandemic.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed Monday that reopening schools from March 8 is the priority as the government considers how to ease virus restrictions, but said ministers have not yet decided if all age groups will return to classrooms at the same time.

Given the uncertainty about how schools reopening will affect the virus reproduction rate, there’s a case for “slightly staggering” pupils’ return so the youngest go first, Mike Tildesley, a Warwick University academic who advises the government on pandemic modeling, said in a briefing Monday. “With any form of relaxation we need to approach it with an element of caution.”

The U.K. took a phased approach after the first lockdown in spring, so only children in the first two years and final year of primary school could go back first. But Johnson is considering ordering all age groups back on March 8, the Sunday Times reported, provided infection rates continue to fall.

Johnson is due to set out his “road map” for ending lockdown in a statement on Feb. 22, and has vowed to give schools two weeks’ notice to prepare. He said Monday he wants to see “progress that is cautious and irreversible.” In a briefing, his spokesman declined to comment on details of the plan.

“We are committed to fully reopening schools as soon as the public health picture allows, and it is hoped that we will be able to do this from March 8,” a spokesperson for the Department for Education said in a statement.

‘Phased Return’

Teachers’ unions also urged caution over the pace of school reopening. “There is no point in bringing all children back at once if this immediately causes a spike in coronavirus infection rates which forces another lockdown,” said Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, adding that all options -- including a “phased return” -- should remain open.

Schools in England have been closed in a third national lockdown since Jan. 5. One in six pupils may never be able to catch up on school time lost during the pandemic, Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield warned Sunday.

It’s also a critical part of Johnson’s push to reopen the economy, which suffered its worst hit in more than 300 years last year. Many parents have been forced to juggle jobs with helping their children with virtual lessons.

The plan to reopen on March 8 was boosted Monday by a study from Warwick University which suggested that schools are not a “significant driver of outbreaks” in the community.

Even so, researchers warned some measures would still be needed when schools reopen, including ensuring that parents don’t mix at pick-up and drop-off times, and that people continue to work at home wherever possible.

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