A union leader has told Sky News “the jury’s out” on whether schools in England will have to close again.
Asked if she was confident that pupils would not have to go back to remote learning at some point in the future, Dr Mary Bousted replied: “No, I’m afraid I’m not.”
Schools remained open during lockdown for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, but the majority of pupils had to contend with remote learning.
All children are able to head back into school, but secondary schools can stagger the return of students over the week to allow for mass testing.
Dr Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said members feared the government “hasn’t taken the safety measures it should have done” and “could have done much more”.
“There are lots of things that should have happened which haven’t happened, the government had two months to prepare for this,” Dr Bousted said.
She said ministers could have done more to ensure social distancing, including “wider spaces” for secondaries and “ventilation units in every classroom”.
“I hope – and my members hope – this will be the last time we close schools to the majority of pupils. Absolutely,” Dr Bousted continued.
“But the jury’s out about whether that will be the case.”
Children’s minister Vicky Ford told Sky News the government had put “extra measures” in place to “make sure we keep COVID out of the classroom”, citing regular testing and the use of face masks.
“It’s a hugely exciting day and a huge relief to so many children, families and school staff all across the country,” she said.
Ms Ford also said the continuing vaccine rollout meant schools were returning against a “very different backdrop” to the situation with the virus seen in January when the third lockdown was introduced.
“That does give us that extra layer of protection against the virus as we bring children back into school,” she said.
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said schools and their staff had put an “enormous amount of effort into taking the necessary measures to welcome everyone back safely”, but claimed ministers “could be offering more support”.
“For example, more support with meeting the COVID security costs that schools are having to face,” she told Sky News.
“We’ve called for nightingale classrooms so that there will be more room to space children out and observe social distancing more easily.
“We have of course called for teachers to be vaccinated, we suggested doing that during half-term, which would have reduced the risk of teacher absence. Because if staff aren’t in school, children can’t be in class.
“I think schools will be saying they’re delighted that their pupils are coming back today, but that they would like more help from the government.”
The Department for Education is advising secondary school students to wear face coverings wherever social distancing cannot be maintained, including in the classroom.
Pressed on what would happen if a student refuses to wear one, Ms Ford said she was sure that the “vast majority” will want to do “everything they can” to protect themselves and others from COVID.
But she added: “Nobody should be denied an education because they don’t wear a mask, but we do really strongly recommend it.”
Dr Bousted said ministers should back schools in enforcing the wearing of masks, adding: “It’s really poor form for the children’s minister to say that.”
She continued: “If that’s what they expect, they should not be equivocating about it before it’s introduced. They should be supporting schools in ensuring that masks are worn.”
Speaking to Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said that longer school days, shorter summer holidays and five-term years are all options under consideration to help pupils catch up on lost learning.
Dr Bousted warned it was “important not to go for a knee jerk reaction that sounds effective, but there’s great doubt over whether it would be”.
She said more time in school was not necessarily the answer.
“Beyond a certain time, countries which spend hours and hours more in school find that time less and less effective,” Dr Bousted said.
“What is more important is what happens in school. And what is more important is what is invested in schools and colleges in order to provide a broad and balanced curriculum.”