Thousands return to school in England but many parents still wary

Sally Weale and Richard Adams
Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Thousands of children returned to schools across England for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown began in March, but many others remained at home because of parental concerns and warnings from some councils that it is still too early to reopen more widely.

This week marks the start of the government’s phased reopening of schools in England, with pupils in nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6 returning to classes from 1 June, but a survey of school leaders suggested about half of the 2 million pupils entitled to return this week would not turn up.

Many school leaders were planning to hold training days to prepare for wider opening to more pupils this week and next, but among those headteachers who opened to more pupils on Monday was Matt Alcock, of Caldecote primary school in Braunstone, Leicester, who welcomed back about a third of his reception and year 1 pupils, and half of year 6.

Alcock’s school remained open throughout the lockdown, catering for up to 70 children of key workers and vulnerable pupils. Normally the three-form entry primary would be buzzing with more than 600 pupils, but on Monday about 140 attended.

“I’ve got mixed emotions. It’s a shame we could not get more in,” Alcock said. “I’m hoping that will remedy itself over time.

“But there’s a sense of joy today, because the school is up and running in a more traditional capacity. It was great to see so many parents this morning. It’s been really nice to see them back. We know everything looks and feels very different.


Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.


Is there evidence of coronavirus coming back in a second wave?


This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.


What are experts worried about?


Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

Peter Beaumont


“But it’s just nice to see kids outside playing, doing what they do well. It’s been interesting to see. They are naturally self-distancing.”

Also open for children from the three specified year groups was Moorgate primary academy in Tamworth, Staffordshire, where about 70% of pupils turned up for classes. “It’s gone really smoothly,” said the headteacher, Jonathan Williams.

“Obviously, it’s very different. Some children are no longer with their normal class teacher. Some of them have found that a bit tricky. There’s been a few tears this morning – not too many. Most children were very excited and happy about being back.”

Related: English schools' return could lead to new surge, experts warn

He said some parents had chosen to keep their children at home: “We’ve some parents who are not bringing children back for shielding reasons and health reasons – either the child or a member of the family has asthma or other conditions.

“We’ve also got parents who feel the daily death rate is too high at the moment to send their children back.”

The most challenging thing, Williams said, was ensuring physical distancing among the youngest pupils. He also said he thought it would be impossible to welcome back all year groups before the summer holiday, as the government had hoped, warning the building was at capacity.

Christopher King, the chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, says almost all of the 550 prep schools in England belonging to IAPS have opened to year six pupils on Monday morning.

Those with nurseries or pre-prep are also opening to reception and year one age groups, with what King calls a mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension.

“The vast majority of prep schools in England are open today, apart from a few that are opening tomorrow. They are enthusiastic about reopening, but for staff and parents there is a degree of apprehension particularly because of the younger year groups and the difficulty in social distancing,” King said.

Like state schools, prep schools remained open for the children of key workers and to provide remote learning for the rest of their pupils. Initial reports of unhappy parents led to many private schools cutting their fees by 10-20% for this term.

A number of councils remain opposed to the government’s 1 June reopening, including the Conservative-controlled Lancashire county council, which advised its schools not to reopen. It said the government’s test-and-trace programme “is not at a state of readiness to respond to Covid-19 community setting outbreaks in a timely manner.

“Furthermore, we are not confident that adjustments to the current measures of the lockdown policy will not risk a second peak of infections locally.”