England: Children step back into the classroom as lockdown eases

Schools have reopened, nursing home rules have been relaxed and two people can now meet outside.

Pupils at England's secondary schools are being mass-tested for COVID and are required to wear face coverings in classrooms [Toby Melville/Reuters]
Pupils at England's secondary schools are being mass-tested for COVID and are required to wear face coverings in classrooms [Toby Melville/Reuters]

Millions of children stepped back into their schools in England on Monday for the first time in two months, ending a second extended stretch of home learning enforced as part of a lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The resumption of classroom teaching marks the first move of the United Kingdom government’s four-stage plan to ease the national lockdown, which officials aim to lift entirely by late June.

The reopening of schools comes as a relief to parents who have spent months juggling work and full-time childcare, but as the coronavirus continues to infect people, there are still health concerns.

Also on Monday, thousands of care home residents in England were allowed to see visitors inside – a designated friend or relative.

Furthermore, two friends can now meet each other outdoors.

‘Roadmap back to normality’

Primary school pupils – those aged four to 11 –  return with new rules. They are not able to socialise with children outside a strictly defined “bubble”, there are staggered arrivals and departures, and hand-washing must be frequent.

At secondary schools, the new measures are more onerous.

Students are being mass-tested for COVID, a logistical headache for schools, and are required to wear masks in class.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “getting all schools back” signalled the first phase of the “roadmap back to normality”.

Most pupils had missed out on more than three months of school in the spring and early summer of 2020, when Britain was under its first strict national COVID lockdown.

In that shutdown, as in the recent one, vulnerable children or those with “key worker” parents were allowed to go to school. However, even they were not having normal lessons, as teachers were busy organising distance learning for all the others.

Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan, reporting from the southern English city of Portsmouth, said the reopening of schools marked a “hugely exciting day” for teachers, pupils and parents but added the government would be “watching very closely” for any impact on infection rates.

“If the infection rate starts to get out of control it means the next stages [of easing lockdown] will not be possible,” he said.

“The reopening of non-essential shops, for example, is due to take place from April 12 and that could be delayed depending on the outcome of this return to school. There’s a lot hanging on what’s happening today and in the coming days and weeks.”

Mass vaccination programme

The government is moving cautiously to ease the lockdown, in a bid to prevent a new surge in infections.

The winter wave of cases was devastating, severely straining hospitals and leaving the country with one of the world’s worst coronavirus death tolls.

While schools have reopened, most shops remain closed, and cafes and restaurants are still only able to offer takeaway or delivery.

The shutdown has coincided with the rollout of a rapid mass inoculation programme which has seen more than 22 million people receive at least one dose of vaccine to date.

It is hoped the vaccination programme will prevent the need for any further lockdowns.

Since the start of the pandemic, the UK has recorded 124,500 deaths within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test – the fifth-highest official death toll in the world and the worst in Europe.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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