LEICESTER, United Kingdom – During a visit to two Catholic schools in East London, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it’s “a moral duty” to get students in England back to school in September.
Schools across the United Kingdom were closed on March 20, three days before the country went into lockdown to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. On June 1, some classes re-started, but the majority of students have been out of formal schooling for over four months.
On Monday, Johnson visited St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School and Sacred Heart of Mary Girls’ School in London’s Upminster area. Although St. Joseph’s is currently closed, Sacred Heart of Mary was hosting a summer camp, and the prime minister participated in an archery activity.
Catholic schools, as well as other faith-based educational institutions, are publicly funded in the United Kingdom.
The prime minister said it was the priority of his government to get children back into school.
Great to visit St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School and Sacred Heart of Mary Girls’ School today, and find out how they are preparing for the return of all students next month. pic.twitter.com/kU1tEUQee5
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) August 10, 2020
“It’s not right that kids should spend more time out of school, it’s much, much better for their health and mental wellbeing, obviously their educational prospects, if everybody comes back to school full-time in September,” he said. “It’s our moral duty as a country to make sure that happens.”
UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said opening schools is safe for children and staff.
“The latest research which is expected to be published later this year – one of the largest studies on the coronavirus in schools in the world – makes it clear there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school,” he said.
“There is also growing confidence among parents about their children returning. This is down to the hard work of school staff across the country who are putting in place a range of protective measures to prepare to welcome back all pupils at the start of term,” Williamson added.
Other members of the UK cabinet have also been promoting Johnson’s plan.
Health and Social Care Minister Helen Whately told Sky News cited the latest research on the “low risk” of school transmission, along with other safety precautions, including teaching children in bubbles, staggering start and finish times, and teachers encouraging children to frequently wash and sanitise their hands.
“It is absolutely safe for children to get back to schools and it is really important that they do,” she said.
“I know that teachers and parents have made huge efforts to continue children’s efforts of education from home – but it’s just not the same as children being in school,” she told the television network. “Sadly, we have seen children from more disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to fall behind in this time – so it’s essential that we have children back at schools this autumn.”
Education is devolved in the United Kingdom, so Johnson’s policies only affect England. Scotland’s schools were due to reopen on Tuesday, Wales will reopen in September, and Northern Ireland will partially reopen Aug. 24 with a full reopening in September.
During his visit to the Catholic schools, Johnson said it is “very important that everybody works together to ensure that our schools are safe and they are – they are COVID secure – I have been very impressed by the work that the teachers have done, working with the unions, to make sure that all schools are safe to go back to in September.”
One of the reasons Johnson visited St. Joseph’s was to inspect the safety provisions they have put in place to prepare for the school year.
“A lot of work being done over making sure that there’s social distancing, bubbling, staggered start times, all that kind of thing. But, basically, the plan is there – get everybody back in September, that’s the right thing for everybody,” he said.
Johnson also tackled the thorny issue of A-Levels – the college preparatory exams taken by UK students to determine university placement. The exams weren’t taken this year due to the pandemic, and the A-Level results are being determined by a combination of class results, teacher assessments, and statistical models. However, students in Scotland – where A-Levels have already been released – have complained that the statistical model downgraded students from poorer schools. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon apologized on Monday, saying the government “did not get it right.”
Johnson said authorities “will do our best to ensure that the hard work of pupils is properly reflected” when results in England on Thursday.
“Clearly, because of what has happened this year, there is some anxiety about what grades pupils are going to get, and everybody understands the system that the teachers are setting the grades, then there’s a standardisation system,” he said.
Several parts of England have been put under restrictions due to localized COVID-19 outbreaks, including the central city of Leicester and most of greater Manchester. Johnson implied that schools would be the last thing to be closed if such local lockdowns are imposed after September.
“I very much hope that doesn’t happen for any pupils but clearly what we are doing – the way we are trying to manage the COVID pandemic – is to have local measures in place and local test and trace to introduce restrictions where that’s necessary; but, as we have all said, the last thing we want to do is to close schools,” the prime minister said.
“We think that education is the priority for the country and that is simple social justice,” he added.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome