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England reopens schools, but many students stay home amid coronavirus fears

Children are staggered at tables during lunch at St Dunstan's College junior school on Monday. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)
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LONDON — Hundreds of thousands of children returned to school on Monday as Britain began easing its coronavirus lockdown restrictions. But there was a strong current of resistance: Many schools remained shuttered and many parents chose to keep their children home.

The return was encouraged, but not mandatory, for children in England in the equivalent of kindergarten, first grade and sixth grade — identified as “key transition years” by the British government.

The semiautonomous governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have decided to wait until August or later to start sending students back.

Within England, too, dozens of local authorities and individual principals chose not to reopen school doors this week.

“As soon as we are convinced that everybody is saying the same thing, instead of having conflicting messages, we will reopen,” Michelle Sheehy, a principal at Millfield Primary School in the West Midlands, told the BBC.

The British government insists that it is easing restrictions cautiously and following the science. Over the weekend, however, several of the government’s own scientific advisers warned that England could be lifting the lockdown too quickly.

Teacher unions and parent groups have raised safety concerns, ranging from access to protective equipment to worries over ensuring social distancing in the classroom.

Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said in a statement, “No teacher should be expected to be in a workplace that is unsafe.”

A survey from the National Foundation for Educational Research found school leaders predicted that 46 percent of families would keep their children at home. The Association of School and College Leaders, a union for school principals, said schools were expecting between 40 and 70 percent of eligible students to show up at schools that reopen this week.

Most British schools, nurseries and universities closed 10 weeks ago, although some remained open for children of key workers and for vulnerable children.

The government is encouraging parents to send eligible children back now, but local councils won’t pursue fines or prosecutions for unauthorized absences.

For students who did slip on their uniforms on Monday, the schools they returned to had been reconfigured for social distancing.

In its official guidance, the government advised schools to stagger drop-offs, pickups and lunch breaks; encouraged teaching outside, where possible, “as this can limit transmission and more easily allow for distance between children and staff”; and remove toys that are hard to clean.

Children who used to be in classes of up to 30 students were now in groups of up to 15. Desks that were normally bunched together in clusters were separated. Students were encouraged to regularly wash their hands and use hand sanitizer. Some schools banned modeling clay, water play and the use of sandboxes. There were long lines outside entrances, as students and parents observed the two-meter rule.

The government said it had prioritized primary schools over secondary schools (the British equivalent of middle school and high school) in part because “there is moderately high scientific confidence in evidence suggesting younger children are less likely to become unwell if infected with coronavirus.”

A survey published Monday by the parenting site Mumsnet found that 39 percent of its users were planning to send their children to school. Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, said in an emailed statement that those who did send their kids were “still worried about infection risks and about whether the environment in schools and nurseries will be unsettling.”

For those parents, she said, “the difficulty of doing paid work while caring for young children was a major factor in their decision.”