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This story by Stephen Castle appeared in the New York Times:
LONDON — When pupils return to Southend High School For Boys next week, the cafeteria will serve takeout food only and lunch will be eaten outside. Lessons will stretch to two-and-a-half hours to reduce the need to switch classrooms. And new equipment has been bought to spray the sports changing rooms with disinfectant.
“By and large, we are pretty ready to roll,” said Robin Bevan, the school’s head teacher, or principal, as he prepared to welcome 1,300 young people to a building about 40 miles east of London, constructed around a century ago without social distancing in mind.
But there is only so much anyone can do.
“The question, ‘Will schools be safe?’ is a slightly crazy question because nothing in life is safe,” said Mr. Bevan. “The real question is, ‘How far have you reduced the risk?’”
Britain is at a critical moment in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic as millions of pupils return to the classrooms, many for the first time since March, when the country went into lockdown.
The resumption of schooling will be crucial for young people who have fallen behind in their studies, and the government hopes it will spur economic recovery by allowing parents to return to work in deserted town and city centers.
But the move also risks a new spike in infections, as young people and teachers mix together. And overseeing the process is an existential political test for the embattled education secretary, Gavin Williamson, who presided over the chaotic awarding of examination results this summer.
“It’s a very, very, difficult situation where you are genuinely trying to balance the needs of a younger generation with the health needs of society,” said Becky Francis, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, a research institute.
Few deny that children need to be back in school and that those from poorer backgrounds with inadequate internet access or none at all have suffered the most, deepening the country’s socio-economic divide. Policymakers worry about the psychological impact on children of the lockdown and, in some cases, their increased exposure to domestic abuse.
“There is a great deal of good will from schools, the majority of parents and most kids, keen to get back” Ms. Francis said, adding that, without a return, there is a risk of “seeing a generation of children blighted by the knock-on effects of Covid.”
Even during the lockdown schools remained open to children of essential workers and those deemed vulnerable. But not too many parents took advantage of it, and a government plan to get all younger pupils in England back before the summer break fell apart.
This time, there is cautious optimism that, despite nervousness among some parents, most children will attend, as they have done in Scotland, where schools reopened earlier in the month.
But the relationship between the government and teachers is fraught. In June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson attacked “left-wing” trade unions, accusing them of obstructing a return to the classroom.
For their part, teachers’ leaders accuse the government of serial incompetence. Repeatedly, they say, they have pointed out practical concerns, been brushed aside, then proved right.
Studies suggest that children are less susceptible to Covid-19 than adults. But there is a bigger risk to teachers and to the families of pupils who may unwittingly carry the virus, particularly people with existing medical conditions.
At Mr. Bevan’s school, pupils will sit facing forward, with groups of students kept together in “bubbles” and staggered start and finishing times for lessons. But in schools for younger children or those with special needs, that is not practical. So head teachers have had to do their best.
“At a time when the government has been dithering, what local school leaders have done is work out a pragmatic solution in their setting,” Mr. Bevan said.
It is a message echoed by Jules White, organizer of a campaign for more resources for schools and called WorthLess?
“Schools are well prepared, we do know how to follow guidance, but there are a lot of factors. If you have 30 children in a classroom, the idea that you can always have two-meter distancing — well, that isn’t going to happen,” said Mr. White, who is head teacher of Tanbridge House School in West Sussex, in the south of England.
“You can mitigate risk by having desks forward facing, having separate equipment,” Mr. White added. “The job of teachers and head teachers is to make people feel safe.”
At his school, two cleaners will work during the school day, rather than after it, to improve hygiene around the clock. Hand sanitizer has been bought at a cost of £3,500, about $4,500, and drama, sports and other extracurricular activities have been put on hold.
But Covid-19, he added, is “a multi-headed monster,” he said. “You hit one thing and another comes up.”