Schools in England are expected to open their doors to some year groups from 1 June.
As FactCheck reported last week, experts consider the covid-19 risk to children themselves to be very low – though the evidence is less clear when it comes to how they might transmit the virus.
The Department for Education told FactCheck today that “plans for a cautious, phased return of some year groups from 1 June, at the earliest, are based on the best scientific and medical advice” and that “the welfare of children and staff has been at the heart of all decision making”.
But, perhaps understandably, some parents are nervous at the prospect. So who decides whether a child returns to school? And what consequences might parents face if they keep children at home after schools ask them to come back?
Let’s take a look.
Which year groups are going back first?
Since lockdown began, only the children of critical workers have been eligible to attend school. That’s meant just 2 per cent of kids have been in class since mid-March.
The government has now asked all schools in England to plan for the return of pupils from reception, year 1 and year 6 from 1 June “at the earliest”. This also applies to nurseries and other early years providers (including nurseries that are part of schools).
Pupils in years 10 and 12 are expected to “begin some face to face support”, though the government says it does not expect these children to return on a full-time basis yet.
Can parents decide to keep children at home?
The government says it “strongly enoucourage[s]” eligible children to return when schools ask them to do so, unless they’re self-isolating or shielding. But it stops short of making the move compulsory.
What happens to parents who don’t send children back?
In normal times, local councils can issue legal sanctions – including fines – to parents whose kids miss school without good reason.
However, in this instance, the Department for Education has confirmed to FactCheck that there will be no penalty for families who do not send their children to school, even if they are eligible to return.
The government’s guidance says “parents will not be fined for non-attendance at this time” – though it doesn’t specify when this grace period will end.
Can headteachers or councils decide to keep schools closed?
In theory, yes.
FactCheck understands that the government is “asking” schools and local authorities to follow its advice – but that the planned re-opening of schools is not mandatory.
It’s possible this could see individual heads or even council areas deciding not to bring children back in line with government recommendations.
What does the government say?
A Department for Education spokesperson told FactCheck:
“We want children back in schools as soon as possible because being with their teachers and friends is so important for their education and their wellbeing.
“Plans for a cautious, phased return of some year groups from 1 June, at the earliest, are based on the best scientific and medical advice. The welfare of children and staff has been at the heart of all decision making.
“We have engaged closely with a range of relevant organisations, including the unions, throughout the past eight weeks, including organising for them to hear directly from the government’s scientific advisers last Friday, and will continue to do so. We have also published detailed guidance on the protective measures schools should take to minimise the risk of transmission.”