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British schools are re-opening - and parents aren't happy about it

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A classroom with safely spaced desks laid out before the possible reopening of Lostock Hall Primary school in Poynton near Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020.
A classroom with safely spaced desks laid out before the possible reopening of Lostock Hall Primary school in Poynton near Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Jon Super
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About half of English pupils allowed to return to schools on Monday are expected to do so with headteachers warning that those most in need of education will be the least likely to receive it.

Nearly half of families — 46% — will keep their children at home on Monday, according to a new report by the National Foundation or Educational Research (NFER).

School leaders warned that the share reaches 50% for pupils who receive free school meals — a poverty indication — and that "this raises the concerns that pupils most in need of access to education will be least likely to receive it".

The UK government's move to begin reopening schools in England from Monday (June 1) has sparked fierce debate in the country with teachers' unions warning it may not be safe and parents refusing to send their children back.

Only pupils aged five, six and 10 are scheduled to return to their classes on this date, while about a quarter of 14 and 16-year-olds should make their way back to school on June 15.

About 90% of parents in England, Wales and Northern Ireland oppose the re-opening of schools, a major survey of more than 250,000 parents by ParentKind has found.

'My children won't be going back'

Lucille Whiting is one of them.

"My children won't be going back. They've all already had COVID-19 and still aren't 100% better anyway," she told Euronews.

The mother-of-five and her husband both tested positive for the deadly disease in late April.

Marina Mejrane via Lucille Whiting
Lucille Whiting (C) won't send her children back to school when they reopen.Marina Mejrane via Lucille Whiting

"I think the most worrying thing for us, is that we're constantly being told that children are hardly affected, but at least two of my children were desperately ill. Temperatures over 40, vomiting and feeling like they couldn't breathe. Most of the children are getting there now, but five weeks on, they still have headaches and upset tummies.

"Our schools are both amazing and the teachers are all fantastic. We know they have the children's best interests at heart. They're being put in the most impossible position and knowing what we now know, I don't want to add to the situation unnecessarily," she added.

The jewellery designer from Kedington, some 35 kilometres south-east of Cambridge, can work from home and so the decision has been made easier.

"I can adjust my workload to account for having to homeschool," she explained. "A lot of parents really don't have a choice. We're lucky that we do."

Whiting also worries about a second wave and whether she'll feel confident sending her children, aged 14, 12, eight, six and three, back to school in September.

The UK, like most European countries, is progressively lifting lockdown restrictions and urging people to stay at home as much as possible in order to prevent a resurgence of the pandemic.

As of May 25, nearly 37,000 people have been known to have died in the UK from the novel coronavirus.

'Schools won't ever be as we knew them'

There is no known treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 so health authorities worldwide, including the World Health Organization, have stressed that people are going to have to live with the virus until a cure is found.

Firgas Esack
Firgas Esack's son Drum (R), in Year 1, will be going back to school on June 1.Firgas Esack

That's the philosophy taken by Firgas Esack, a publicist and mother-of-four.

"We will be sending our son who is in Year 1 (5-6 year olds) back on June 1. It’s a tough choice for any parent but we live in a Norfolk village and the reopening plan coupled with the safety measures that the school is proposing seem very sensible, given the circumstances," she told Euronews.

"Many parents nationwide are voicing the concern that the ‘new normal’ is no place for a child, but we are looking on the positive side and hoping that our son’s school will rise to the challenge to make the best of it.

"Who knows what the future holds, but it is just as probable that schools won’t ever be ‘as we knew them’, now or in September or by the time our six-year-old graduates. We feel confident that the school will be vigilant for virus symptoms and isolate the bubbles if this needs to happen," she added.

Her children, she also said, don't just miss learning in school, they also miss the structure and socialising with friends.

The school her children attends has given parents a "thorough guide" detailing the social distancing measures that will be put in place on the premises to prepare the children.

"Schools across the country have been successful in supporting key workers’ children – and, in reality, key workers are on the front line, as opposed to me as a parent walking from the Aga to the washing line to my home office most days!" she said.

However, the NFER stressed on Monday that over a quarter of teaching staff available to work can only do so from home and that extra staff and funding are needed to replace unavailable teachers, supervise pupils and provide distance learning.

School leaders also flagged that they feel unprepared for resuming activities with more pupils, especially when it comes to managing pupil movement around school and organising school space to enable social distancing.

70 COVID-19 cases in a week

The National Education Union revealed earlier last week that it "is not convinced that it is safe to open schools more widely on June 1st".

The union described itself as "concerned", citing evidence by Independent SAGE - a group of scientists that have been scrutinising the government body of the same name (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) - that stated on May 22 that reopening schools on June 1 is "simply too early" and that "by going ahead with this dangerous decision, the government is further risking the health of our communities and the likelihood of a second spike".

Faced with a backlash from parents and teachers' unions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson conceded earlier this week that it "may not be possible" for all schools to reopen and that "the government will continue to support and work with the sector to ensure that any schools experiencing difficulties are able to open more widely as soon as possible".

At least 22 European countries have started to lift restrictions on schools, including Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, and Spain.

France's Education Ministry revealed on May 18 that 70 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in schools, one week after some 40,000 of them reopened their doors.