For months there’s been speculation on when schools will reopen again in the UK and it would appear we now have a plan in place for children to return. However, the return date has caused fierce debate among teachers, parents and unions, with many feeling that 1 June is just too soon.
A Change.org petition, started by mum Lucy Browne to give parents the right to refuse to send their child back to school in June has now been signed by over 500K, asking the government for clearer communication on parents’ rights.
So can parents refuse to send their children back to school when they reopen? And what rights do parents have when it comes to keeping children – and the rest of their family – safe, by keeping them home?
When are schools expected to reopen in the UK?
On Sunday night, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that by 1 June the country will be in a position “to get primary pupils back into schools, in stages, beginning with reception, Year 1 and Year 6”. He also revealed the government’s “ambition” that secondary school students who have exams next year will also return, so they can “get at least some time with their teachers before the holidays”. The news that schools are set to reopen in the coming weeks comes as long as the spread of Covid-19 remains “on the downward slope”. Schools closed on March 20th 2020 to try and contain the coronavirus outbreak.
The backlash against schools reopening
There’s been a huge backlash on social media, with parents using platforms like Facebook and twitter to voice their concerns. ‘I’m not sure of the legal implications, but the right to stay alive is top of the list for me,’ wrote one concerned parent.
“I have so many worries about sending the children back to school. I am worried for my youngest son’s health. He often suffers with his breathing whenever he gets ill,” Sarah Vaughan, mum of 3 and founder of The Do Try This at Home School told GoodtoKnow.
“I don’t think the policy is well thought out. I feel it is rushed and poorly resourced with an agenda that suits our government without consideration of children’s mental and physical wellbeing.”
Leon Hady, a former headteacher and worldwide leader in E-learning at Guide Education, argues that the government’s handling of the issue is partly to blame for parents’ anxiety. “A lot of people said the return date was going to be really important. But obviously when you have the return date, you want a clear and coherent plan as well,” he told GoodtoKnow. “What the government did really badly was put out a message that things will be back to normal and we’re kickstarting the economy, but the mood of the country wasn’t really about that. It’s still very much to do with assisting each other, helping each other, taking care.
“The government also didn’t consult unions or head teachers to get them on side. It’s just caused a disconnect and worry. The approach has been heavy handed.”
Do I have to send my child back to school when they reopen?
Government guidelines have made it clear that parents and guardians will not be penalised, should they decide not to send their children back to school. However parents are being actively encouraged to send children back.
“Whilst there will be no penalty for families who do not send their children to school, families will be strongly encouraged to take up these places – unless the child or a family member is shielding or the child is particularly vulnerable due to an underlying condition,” the Department for Education said.
Legally, parents have the right to refuse to send their child back to school according to the new government guidelines. Vanessa Challess, Senior Partner at Tiger Law UK, told GoodtoKnow, “In the depths of the guidance published on 11 May 2020 there is a small paragraph entitled ‘If my child is eligible, is it compulsory for them to attend school?’ This is clearly a question many parents are struggling with.
“The answer is no, it is not compulsory. The government says it ‘strongly encourages’ children in the eligible groups to attend but parents will not be fined for non-attendance at this time.”
“They’ve taken the penalisation away, essentially because no one knows what’s going on at home,” Leon explains. “Whether grandma needs to look after the kids, or someone in the family has underlying conditions. And fines wouldn’t help the national mood at the moment. People are anxious, they’ve lost jobs. The last thing they need is a fine on top of that.”
Should I send my child back to school: is it safe?
Education secretary Gavin Williamson has accused unions of “scaremongering” over his plans for a phased return of pupils, claiming that smaller class sizes, extra cleaning and other safeguards would help make schools safe. ‘All of us in education have a duty to work together to get children back to school. Let me reassure families that we are giving schools all the guidance and support they will need to welcome pupils back,’ he wrote in the Daily Mail.
‘This includes keeping class sizes small, making sure children stay within small groups, and being rigorous about hygiene, cleaning and staggering break and mealtimes.’
However, trade unions have fiercely opposed children returning to school at this early stage, claiming it would be reckless to send students – and teachers – back without more testing measures in place. General secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union Patrick Roach has claimed teachers can legally refuse to return to work unless they receive the same protection as other frontline staff.
On school closures, he said, “We have challenged the government to publish the scientific advice which underpins its decision to try to start to reopen schools from 1 June and to explain how it can demonstrate to school staff and parents that the decisions it is making are the right ones to protect public health. The NASUWT remains clear that no school should reopen until it can demonstrate that it is safe to do so.”
Ivana Poku, founder of Mumsjourney and maternal mental health advocate, agrees that, psychologically, parents need more certainty. “It’s in the child’s best interests to keep them at home, until we know more and have absolute certainty it is safe for our children to go back to school. Schools should be happy to answer all the questions that come from parents – however small or big. They need to give each parent a certain level of confidence in the safety of their child.”
Will government guidelines change in September and fines be imposed?
At this point, it’s hard to have a definitive answer. Although Leon argues that the virus must be well and truly under control before fines are back in place. “I think in the first instance the government will be looking to return to normal in all situations and easing the leniency of ‘it’s up to you’ until they are clear that this is well and truly under control,” he said.
“We are going to see guidance evolve over the next few weeks and months, just as it has been over the last few weeks and months, so we will need to keep up to date with this to understand where parents stand in September,” Vanessa told us. “If social distancing is still in place, I think it’s likely that parents will escape penalties for continuing to homeschool.”
‘As a single mum, I have nobody to turn to if I get sick’: Ashanti Jason is a mum of four, living in East London
“I have no intention of sending my children back to school until September. I feel like there should be enough in place by then to give me confidence they will be safe and in turn not making me ill. I’m a single mother of four children, so I have no one to turn to if I get sick. I am grateful that we are all safe and healthy at home, but it’s hard as you can get restless and worried – it’s definitely messed with my sleep patterns.
“The government is rushing into this – they are more worried about money than people’s lives”
“My eldest children have their work plans and tasks on the computer from school and they spend the full day getting through that. It is definitely more hands-on with the twins, who are only eight, but the great thing is seeing how they learn, what they understand and trying my best to help them get through it all.
“The government is rushing into this. They are more worried about money than people’s lives. I’d need to see more safety measures before children go back. Masks and gloves, like at the supermarket. And teachers and staff regularly tested, so they have peace of mind.”