LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson's push to reopen schools in June, to get kids back in classrooms and free up their parents to jump-start Britain's moribund economy, is running into surprisingly steep resistance.
Johnson reaffirmed his plan that primary schools in England should open in a week at a news conference Sunday evening. It’s not going well.
The prime minister acknowledged that it might not be possible for all schools. He promised more cleaning of grubby surfaces, more social distancing between first-graders, more use of outdoor space, and more virus screening for students and teachers.
But full stop: Johnson’s pitch to reopen schools is a major test of the trust placed in his government — one of the most important metrics for lifting the shutdown.
The British government has been hammered for its shortcomings in deploying widespread and transparent testing and tracing; in safeguarding nursing homes, where deaths have skyrocketed; and in providing protective gloves and masks to front-line medical workers, who during the worst days of epidemic spike were forced to don garbage bags as gowns.
The holiday weekend brought more trouble for Downing Street, as the press revealed that Johnson’s top adviser — his spin doctor Dominic Cummings — had breached shutdown rules by taking a 260-mile road trip to his parents’ property in north England while he was stricken with the novel coronavirus.
The Cummings affair has generated complaints that there was one rule for the elites and another for the ordinary folk, who don’t have country homes to escape to.
On Sunday, Johnson vowed to stand by his man, saying that Cummings “acted responsibly and legally and with integrity and with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of the virus and saving lives,” when he traveled north to isolate at his parents’ home with his sick wife and child.
The prime minister desperately wants Britain to catch up to the rest of Europe and America, to reopen soon, but slowly.
Johnson was almost killed by the virus, and since his release from intensive care he has stressed caution.
But Britain has fallen into what economists say is its deepest recession in 300 years, and shutdowns here and around the globe have underscored a reality of modern life: You can’t run an economy without schools, which not only provide learning for the next generation but also provide essential child care for working parents.
If schools don’t open, parents can’t go back to work.
Britain is watching what happens as classes resume in Germany, New Zealand and Denmark. But infections in those countries have been much lower. Britain, with 37,000 dead, has suffered the highest toll in Europe.
Johnson’s government has pursed a united “four nations” approach, with coordination among England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. But that solidarity is splintering.
Teachers and their unions are urging caution. The unions say their members are bewildered by government plans, such as they are. Why not delay for a few weeks, asked Kevin Courtney, a leader of the National Education Union.
Nor does it appear that Johnson has won over the most important constituency: worried parents.
Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, a parenting website in Britain, said, “Many parents are seriously reluctant to send their children back to school.”
“Our users are worried about children passing on the virus within households, in the wider community and to school staff,” she said.
The government plans to start with a partial reopening of elementary schools, inviting back students in the equivalent of kindergarten, grade one and grade six, which is the final year of primary school, as it’s known in the United Kingdom.
Roberts said that there is “some sympathy” for the rationale behind starting with the older students, “to help those children with the transition to secondary school.” But the plan to resume classes for younger children is “causing bafflement and some anger, and a suspicion that decisions are being driven by the need to get people back to work.”
Opinion surveys show people are wary. The most recent polling by YouGov indicated 36 percent approve of opening schools in early June and 50 percent oppose it. Fourteen percent said they didn’t know.
Dozens of municipalities in England say they cannot guarantee their elementary classes will reopen on June 1. Inquiries by the BBC and Financial Times found that at least 44 of 151 municipal councils in England have said they won’t open all their primary schools by then — a clear rejection of government calls.
The prime minister has promised to deliver a “world-beating” test-and-trace system by June 1 to stop a possible second wave of contagion. But that program has been delayed — and might not be up and running until after Johnson wants schools to open.
The first 24,000 tracers are just being hired and trained now. A mobile phone app from the National Health Service has experienced glitches.
The government’s scientific advisers have told ministers that schools need a robust system to test and trace new cases of the coronavirus before students can safely return to their classrooms.
Reports from the scientists, who advise the government, found that reopening schools did not pose a major risk to students or teachers, but they also said that infections could climb if classes began. The papers published by the advisers provided few clear-cut answers.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said. “The welfare of children remains at the very heart of everything we are doing.”
“Being able to be back in school will benefit not just their education but also their well-being,” he said.