LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) — All children in England will have to go back to school in September, the government said Thursday, after weeks of wrangling as coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
The government initially intended pupils to return before the summer break later this month but was forced to revise its plans after concerns from teaching unions and parents.
Local authorities said it would be difficult to enforce two-metre (six feet) social distancing with children, and many schools would have to cut class sizes because of a lack of space.
The two-metre rule has now been cut to one metre, in part because of increased pressure from businesses, who say they would be unable to enforce it or have to remain closed.
Criticism about continued school closures, which began in March, has mounted, particularly because of lack of access to online learning by more disadvantaged families.
“It is critical to ensure that no child loses more time in education,” Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told parliament.
“Schools and colleges will need to work with families to secure regular attendance from the start of the new academic year with the reintroduction of mandatory attendance.”
Britain’s official coronavirus toll of almost 44,000 is Europe’s highest and third only to the United States and Brazil.
Infection rates have fallen however, allowing the reopening of swathes of the hospitality, tourism and culture sectors in England from this weekend.
The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for their own response, including the lifting of lockdown measures.
They are also responsible for education policy, and have set earlier dates for school reopenings than in England. The youngest children returned last month.
The UK government is now focused on fighting local outbreaks. This week, it ordered a fresh shutdown and movement restrictions in Leicester, central England, after a spike in cases.
Williamson said stricter health guidance for schools could be issued should new outbreaks occur in specific regions.
But he said “unless the evidence changes, I will not be issuing further national notices to modify the” plan.
© Agence France-Presse