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U.K.'s Boris Johnson faces schools rebellion over plans to send kids back

"There is no such thing as social distancing in a school — it does not exist and would never exist," one principal wrote in an open letter to parents.
Image: Notices advising staff and pupils to maintain 2m of separation to create an environment safe from Coronavirus are displayed at Slaithwaite C of E Junior and Infant School in Slaithwaite, near Huddersfield, northern England
Social distancing notices at Slaithwaite Church of England Junior and Infant School in northern England.Oli Scarff / AFP - Getty Images

LONDON — In the early days of the lockdown, it almost felt like a novelty for parents like Claire Collins as she and her friends swapped home schooling tips on WhatsApp.

"There was an influx of people passing around, quite excitedly, things you could do with your kids at home: links on Pinterest, that sort of thing," said Collins, 37, who has children ages 2 and 5 and lives in the town of Abergavenny in Wales.

"Now I think that enthusiasm has died. It's fizzled out," she said, struggling to speak over her children, Amber and Romy, who were vying for her attention in the background. "It sounds fun, but it's actually been quite taxing and draining."

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Ten weeks after most British classrooms were shuttered, the question of when kids can return has become one of several storms battering Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government during the coronavirus pandemic.

He faces outright revolt from many schools after pressing ahead with plans to send some children back June 1 — partly so they can continue learning but also so their parents are freed up to help kick-start the economy.

As many as 1,500 schools in England may disobey the government: That's the number covered by the 18 city and regional councils saying they are willing to defy any such order unless there is further assurance that teachers, parents and kids aren't at unnecessary risk from COVID-19.

There are around 24,000 schools and 343 councils in England.

Image: La Petite Ecole Bilingue in north London
A sign has been amended to tell pupils to avoid using the handrail at La Petite Ecole Bilingue in Kentish Town, north London.Isabel Infantes / AFP - Getty Images

For many Brits, trust in the government declined further last weekend when Johnson resisted mounting pressure to fire his top adviser, Dominic Cummings. It emerged that Cummings had driven 260 miles to a second family home at the height of the lockdown — while his wife was sick with coronavirus symptoms.

The revelation provoked fury in the United Kingdom, which has the second-highest death toll in the world, with at least 47,000 recorded deaths involving COVID-19.

Johnson has been accused of failing to introduce social distancing measures as soon as he should have, not stocking enough personal protective equipment for health workers, needlessly exposing nursing homes to the virus and bungling his testing strategy.

Some point to Germany, South Korea and New Zealand, which are beginning to reopen classrooms. But many experts point out that they are far better placed because their aggressive "test, track and isolate" policies squelched the outbreak early.

The British government launched its own nationwide testing system Thursday, although at least one senior regional health official has warned it is "not at a state of readiness" to avoid risking a "second peak of infections" if schools were to reopen next week.

(Johnson has the power to speak only for England. Schools in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have outlined more cautious plans. All U.K. schools have remained open to the kids of health care workers and other essential workers, although few have attended in practice.)

'No such thing as social distancing in a school'

The fears will be familiar to parents and teachers around the world.

In the United States, where President Donald Trump has been urging a reopening despite warnings from his top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, governors in most states have ordered public schools closed for the rest of this academic year at least.

But few places have had quite the level of opposition as the U.K.

"I would rather any child repeat a year than go back too soon and have to lose a child," Howard Fisher, the principal of St. George's Church of England Primary School, in Kent, wrote in an open letter to parents. "There is no such thing as social distancing in a school — it does not exist and would never exist."

Kids rarely become seriously ill with the coronavirus, but some British teachers, unions and parents worry about infectious children exposing vulnerable family members.

Some studies suggest that reopening schools won't greatly increase transmission. But in France, a flare-up of 70 cases was linked to schools a week after a third of the kids went back.

Image: Watlington Primary School in Oxfordhire, England
Boots outside a classroom as Watlington Primary School, in Oxfordshire, England, prepares to reopen in June.Eddie Keogh / Reuters

South Korean schools have deep-cleaned buildings, fitted desks with barriers and checked pupils' temperatures. Likewise, British schools are being advised to stagger breaks and pickup times and to reduce class sizes from an average of 22 to 15.

That raises logistical problems. Smaller classes mean more teachers and rooms — which many British schools, already stretched by a decade of austerity, don't have.

Few deny that schools are a priority. But teachers and parents are still divided over whether the risks are too great. A survey by the pollster YouGov found that 50 percent of people were against reopening some classes June 1, compared to 36 percent for.

"It's an absolute keystone and the first stage that needs to happen if we are going to get out of this," said John Dickson, 48, a clinical scientist who lives in Watford, north of London, and whose two teenage children have been learning from home.

"We appear to have gone to some kind of cave mentality where we don't want to leave the cave because it's dangerous outside," he added. "But we forget that, you know, risk is everywhere."

Collins, in Abergavenny, said there is "no easy answer, and things really do need to be thoroughly considered before a decision is made." She added that "we will never know if things work until we try them out — this is something we can't stand still on."

'Let our teachers be heroes'

The nuanced debate appears to have been hijacked by more polemic forces.

Mainly right-leaning newspapers and commentators have accused the teachers unions of cowardice or of politicizing the argument to hurt Johnson's ruling Conservative Party.

"Time for teachers to show the same bravery!" columnist Isabel Oakeshott tweeted. One Daily Mail front page read, "Let our teachers be heroes," blaming "militant unions" for "standing in their way."

It's just one symptom of a country in which 90 percent of the people were initially united in supporting lockdown measures but are now lurching back into their adversarial ways, said Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London.

"The initial rally-around-the-flag effect that boosted many governments globally has begun to dissipate," he said. "We are beginning to see there is quite a lot of unhappiness on the part of the British population about aspects of the government's handling of the crisis."

One pollster, Savanta ComRes, has Johnson crashing from a plus-44 percentage-point net approval rating March 25 to a minus-1 percentage-point net approval rating two months later.

Image: A closed school in Cheshunt, England
A thank you sign for the publicly funded National Health Service outside a closed school in Cheshunt in Hertfordshire in early May.Mark Hartnell / Reuters

Robert Colvile, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, a London think tank, said: "Lockdown was overwhelmingly popular, but it was also quite a simple thing to say and do. Whereas coming out of it, we're in a much more complex situation."

'Trapped in unsafe homes'

For even the happiest of families, frustration has built up as they have spent weeks crammed into homes on average less than half the size of those in the U.S. It's common to hear complaints — voiced in the most loving but exhausted way possible — from parents feeling drained after months shut inside with their progeny.

In WhatsApp message groups, a very British type of dark humor is rife. "Catching COVID-19 is probably preferable to looking after your own kids for eight weeks," one dad joked grimly, asking to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

Moreover, kids who lose a third of study time in one school year will on average receive around 3 percent to 4 percent less income over their professional lives, according to a projection by the ifo Institute, a research group based in Munich.

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For many, the lockdown is more serious still.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a British charity, has recorded a surge of almost 20 percent in calls related to concerns about physical abuse.

"Many feel anxious without school, many are trapped in unsafe homes," it says, "and some are having suicidal thoughts and feelings."

Anyone in the U.K. who is concerned about a child's welfare can call the NSPCC at 0808 800 5000 or email