Can parents refuse to send their children to school when they reopen?

On Sunday 10 May, Boris Johnson delivered an address outlining how lockdown measures, which have been established since Monday 23 March, are to ease across England.

These changes included encouraging people who cannot work from home such as those in construction and manufacturing to return to work, allowing more daily outdoor exercise and permitting sunbathing in parks as long as social distancing guidelines are followed.

Plans have also been put in place for schools to reopen in the coming weeks, as long as the spread of Covid-19 remains “on the downward slope”.

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However, schools in other parts of the UK in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not expected to open at the same time as those in England.

When are schools across England expected to reopen?

On Friday 20 March, three days before the establishment of nationwide lockdown, schools across England were closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Only vulnerable children and children of critical workers were allowed to remain in school from that period.

In an update published by the government on Monday 11 May, it states that by Monday 1 June “at the earliest”, primary schools in England “may be able to welcome back children in key transition years”, which includes students in nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.

“Secondary schools, sixth forms and colleges will also work towards the possibility of providing some face-to-face contact with young people in Year 10 and Year 12 to help them prepare for exams next year,” the Department for Education states.

However, “progress will be monitored every day” and will determine whether it is safe to reopen schools for an increased number of pupils.

“If the virus stays on the downward slope, and the R remains below 1, then – and only then – will it become safe to go further, move to the second step and reopen schools,” the government outlines.

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The government adds that its aim is “for all primary school children to return to school before the summer for a month if feasible, though this will be kept under review”.

“The Department of Education will engage closely with schools and early years providers to develop further detail and guidance on how schools should facilitate this.”

Can parents refuse to send their children to school?

Following the prime minister’s speech on Sunday evening, the government said that it is “examining more stringent enforcement measures for non-compliance” with social distancing measures, “as it has seen in many other countries”.

“The government will impose higher fines to reflect the increased risk to others of breaking the rules as people are returning to work and school. The government will seek to make clearer to the public what is and is not allowed,” it said.

However, the government has also made it clear that parents and guardians will not be penalised should they decide not to send their children back to school when they are encouraged to do so.

“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.

When are schools expected to reopen in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Nicola Sturgeon recently warned that the full reopening of primary schools in Scotland would “most likely” overwhelm the NHS within two months.

The first minister of Scotland stated that the reopening of schools ”might not be possible at all ahead of the summer holidays”.

Kirsty Williams, education minister for Wales, said that schools in the country will not reopen on 1 June as any update would need to be “communicated well in advance”.

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“We are working closely with local authorities to ensure that schools are supported in this preparation work,” Ms Williams said.

“In the meantime, critical workers and those who need to use schools or hubs for your children should continue to do so,” the education minister stated, adding that the Welsh government “will continue to be guided by the very latest scientific advice and will only look to have more pupils and staff in schools when it is safe to do so”.

Earlier this month, Northern Ireland’s education minister Peter Weir said there was no planned date for the reopening of schools across the country.

However, the education minister later told BBC Radio Foyle that it is “extremely likely” there could be a phased reopening of schools in Northern Ireland at the start of the academic year in September.