Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has defended plans to send children back to schools next month – claiming a track and trace system will be in place by then.
The cabinet member said going back to school was “pivotal” for children, with the government anxious to reopen classrooms.
From next month, Mr Williamson said, children will qualify for coronavirus testing if they show symptoms.
A track-and-trace system will be introduced to prevent the killer bug spreading as a result of schools reopening, he told the daily Downing Street briefing this afternoon.
But the Education Secretary admitted that many teachers and parents are “anxious” – and acknowledged recent weeks have been stressful for families.
It comes as parents warn their children cannot be treated as “guinea pigs”, and teaching unions raised safety fears about the government plans.
Mr Williamson said: “The longer schools are closed the more children miss out. Teachers know this.”
And he added that for some, school is the “safest place to be”.
He said children in reception, Year 1 and 6 – as well as Years 10 and 12 – can go back to school in smaller class sizes as part of a phased return.
“They stand to lose more by staying away from school,” he said.
Class sizes will be reduced and hygiene measures will be stepped up, the cabinet member stated.
Mr Williamson said there are no plans to begin the next academic year in August to make up for lost time.
Plans to partially reopen primary schools have sparked alarm, with the British Medical Association (BMA) among the organisations voicing concerns – saying the infection rate is not low enough for it to be safe.
Mr Williamson added: “I want to reassure you that the this approach is based on the best scientific advice with children at the heart of everything we do.”
Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, said that evidence shows children are not at high risk from the virus.
She said: “They definitely don’t get as ill, we rarely see them in hospital compared to the older population.
“There’s some evidence that they’re less likely to pass it on.”
When asked about the Government’s response to criticism from the BMA that the number of cases was not low enough to return to school, Mr Williamson said: “We recognise how important schools are in terms of the important role that they play in every child’s life.
“It is understandable then when you’re given the advice that there is an opportunity to start opening schools in a very controlled, careful and phased way because of the enormous benefits that delivers to every single child – not just in terms of their education, but in terms of their emotional welfare, their physical welfare as well, we should be looking at doing that.”
He said that the Government will look at all the advice they get, and bring it back to Sage to ask how it fits with their advice.
He added: “I would hope that any school, wherever it is in the country, actually puts at the heart of what it does is making sure we’re delivering the very best for every single child in this country.”
Mr Williamson acknowleged the impact closures have had on pupils, saying there is “no substitute” for being in a classroom.
Addressing them, he said: “The sacrifices that you have had to make through no choice of your own.
“But the impact that this coronavirus has had on your life has made things so incredibly tough for all of you.”
He continued: “It’s vital that we do everything we can to help them to do well.”
And Mr Williamson said teachers were anxious about the impact the extended break was having on children.
He stated: “Teachers know that there are children out there that have not spoken or played with another child their own age for the last two months.
“They know there are children from difficult or very unhappy homes for whom school is the happiest moment in their week, and it’s also the safest place for them to be.”
Regarding testing and tracing, Mr Williamson added: “School staff can already be tested for the virus, but from the first of June we’ll extend that to cover children and their families if any of them develop symptoms.
“Together these measures will create an inherently safer system where the risk of transmission is substantially reduced for children, their teachers and also their families.”
It comes as the government comes under fire over plans to reopen schools from the start of next month, with some councils refusing to go along with the easing of restrictions.
Boris Johnson announced last weekend that the government planned to get primary schools open again from June 1 for some age groups.
But there has been widespread opposition among teachers and parents, with many questioning whether it is safe to get schools up and running again.
Liverpool Council has announced that only the children of key workers will be allowed to attend school from June 1 in defiance of the government.
Union representatives said they had been left with more questions than answers, with one union leader describing the scientific evidence as “flimsy at best”.
They were backed by the British Medical Association which said schools should not reopen until the numbers of coronavirus cases were “much lower”.
But Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said many children were struggling away from the classroom and the lack of education would impact on future life chances.
Concerns about Mr Johnson’s decision to begin easing the lockdown in England were heightened by the disclosure that the R number – measuring the transmission rate of the virus – has edged up.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said the latest data suggested R in England was between 0.7 and 1.0 – compared to a previous estimate of 0.5 to 0.9.
The country’s biggest primary school chains plan to reopen their classrooms to pupils at the start of next month despite opposition from teaching unions.
The heads of Reach 2, Harris, Oasis and GEP said they are backing the government’s controversial plans to reopen state schools in England for pupils in reception and Years 1 and 6 from June 1.
Sir Steve Lancashire, chief executive of Reach 2, the country’s biggest MAT with 50 schools, told The Times : “Our intention is to open all of our schools for the priority year groups, and will do so as long as the rigorous risk assessments we carry out for each school gives us the reassurance we need that we can keep our pupils and staff as safe as possible.”
However civic leaders in northern England, including Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, have voiced concerns it is still spreading more quickly in their areas and it was too soon for any easing.
In Liverpool, the city council confirmed that it would continue to allow only the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils to attend school from June 1.
Mayor Joe Anderson said he was “not going to take risks with children’s lives or with staff and teaching professionals’ lives.”
And Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “We won’t be bringing new cohorts of children back into schools on the 1st of June.”