LONDON — When pupils return to Southend High School For Boys next week, the cafeteria will serve takeout food only and lunch will be eaten outside. Lessons will stretch to two-and-a-half hours to reduce the need to switch classrooms. And new equipment has been bought to spray the sports changing rooms with disinfectant.
“By and large, we are pretty ready to roll,” said Robin Bevan, the school’s head teacher, or principal, as he prepared to welcome 1,300 young people to a building about 40 miles east of London, constructed around a century ago without social distancing in mind.
But there is only so much anyone can do.
“The question, ‘Will schools be safe?’ is a slightly crazy question because nothing in life is safe,” said Mr. Bevan. “The real question is, ‘How far have you reduced the risk?’”
Britain is at a critical moment in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic as millions of pupils return to the classrooms, many for the first time since March, when the country went into lockdown.
The resumption of schooling will be crucial for young people who have fallen behind in their studies, and the government hopes it will spur economic recovery by allowing parents to return to work in deserted town and city centers.
But the move also risks a new spike in infections, as young people and teachers mix together. And overseeing the process is an existential political test for the embattled education secretary, Gavin Williamson, who presided over the chaotic awarding of examination results this summer.
“It’s a very, very, difficult situation where you are genuinely trying to balance the needs of a younger generation with the health needs of society,” said Becky Francis, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, a research institute.
Few deny that children need to be back in school and that those from poorer backgrounds with inadequate internet access or none at all have suffered the most, deepening the country’s socio-economic divide. Policymakers worry about the psychological impact on children of the lockdown and, in some cases, their increased exposure to domestic abuse.
“There is a great deal of good will from schools, the majority of parents and most kids, keen to get back” Ms. Francis said, adding that, without a return, there is a risk of “seeing a generation of children blighted by the knock-on effects of Covid.”
Even during the lockdown schools remained open to children of essential workers and those deemed vulnerable. But not too many parents took advantage of it, and a government plan to get all younger pupils in England back before the summer break fell apart.
This time, there is cautious optimism that, despite nervousness among some parents, most children will attend, as they have done in Scotland, where schools reopened earlier in the month.
But the relationship between the government and teachers is fraught. In June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson attacked “left-wing” trade unions, accusing them of obstructing a return to the classroom.
For their part, teachers’ leaders accuse the government of serial incompetence. Repeatedly, they say, they have pointed out practical concerns, been brushed aside, then proved right.
Studies suggest that children are less susceptible to Covid-19 than adults. But there is a bigger risk to teachers and to the families of pupils who may unwittingly carry the virus, particularly people with existing medical conditions.
At Mr. Bevan’s school, pupils will sit facing forward, with groups of students kept together in “bubbles” and staggered start and finishing times for lessons. But in schools for younger children or those with special needs, that is not practical. So head teachers have had to do their best.
“At a time when the government has been dithering, what local school leaders have done is work out a pragmatic solution in their setting,” Mr. Bevan said.
It is a message echoed by Jules White, organizer of a campaign for more resources for schools and called WorthLess?
“Schools are well prepared, we do know how to follow guidance, but there are a lot of factors. If you have 30 children in a classroom, the idea that you can always have two-meter distancing — well, that isn’t going to happen,” said Mr. White, who is head teacher of Tanbridge House School in West Sussex, in the south of England.
“You can mitigate risk by having desks forward facing, having separate equipment,” Mr. White added. “The job of teachers and head teachers is to make people feel safe.”
At his school, two cleaners will work during the school day, rather than after it, to improve hygiene around the clock. Hand sanitizer has been bought at a cost of £3,500, about $4,500, and drama, sports and other extracurricular activities have been put on hold.
But Covid-19, he added, is “a multi-headed monster,” he said. “You hit one thing and another comes up.”
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If anyone should know that, it is Mr. Williamson whose job is widely thought to be on the line after a series of missteps. So far, others have paid the price for the examination results fiasco.
Sally Collier, the head of Ofqual, the exams regulator, has announced her departure, and she has been followed by the top civil servant at the Education Department, Jonathan Slater. As for the prime minister, he blamed a “mutant algorithm” for the chaos, rather than Mr. Williamson.
Still the policy reversals keep on coming, the latest when the government said that face coverings should be worn in school corridors in parts of the country where there is a high Covid-19 infection rate.
Just a day earlier, it had argued this was unnecessary.
Otherwise, guidance to schools on reopening has been generally well received, but the main question is how well the government is prepared if there is a spike in infections.
“Schools and colleges need to know what should happen if an outbreak of the virus occurs in individual schools or more widely with either national, regional or local spikes,” the National Education Union said in a statement.
Ministers have promised that mobile testing units will be made available to identify the scale of any outbreak, but the government has struggled to establish an effective testing, tracking and tracing system.
Nor is there much trust between teachers and political leaders. Mr. Johnson’s closest aide, Dominic Cummings, once worked at the Education Department as an adviser to Michael Gove, then the secretary of state for education and still a senior cabinet minister.
In that post Mr. Cummings waged war on the education establishment, which he nicknamed “the blob.” But without its cooperation there is little chance that the government can succeed.
Many teachers want the government to scale back its ambitions, acknowledge the constraints and move early to avoid a repeat of this year’s examinations crisis in 2021.
This could be done, they say, by reducing school inspections, eliminating nonessential testing and planning ahead in case it proves impossible next year to hold all of the end of school year exams.
“You can’t control some things,” added Mr. White, “but other factors you can control, and you can reduce demands on schools whose capacity is finite.”