TEACHERS and parents are bracing themselves for the proposed reopening of primary schools at the beginning of next month.

Ministers will make the final decision next Thursday on whether to press ahead with the plan to reopen for nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6 classes on June 1 at the earliest.

A tense rift has opened up between teaching unions and the government over the question, as pressure has mounted on schools to reopen before the summer holidays.

A poll of almost 30,000 National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) members has found that just five per cent believed it was safe for more children to return to schools in England from June 1.

“Since the announcement that schools were to reopen to children in nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6, we have received lots of emails from extremely concerned teachers, heads and parents who feel the plans are unsafe and rushed,” said Andy Brewerton, district president of Cumbria National Education Union.

“Many heads and schools are struggling to get to grips with the inconsistent and poorly thought out guidance from the government and are having to create and modify ideas as they go along.

“Lots are concerned that they might be getting all of this wrong."

Given the wide diversity of schools in Cumbria there will not be one single approach to reopening that applies to all schools.

Instead, individual schools, and school clusters, will make their own decisions following a risk based assessment process. Support will continue to be available to schools from the council and from public health experts to complete this assessment.

This will enable schools to consider the potential risks and issues carefully before reaching a decision. This includes factors like: how social distancing can be implemented; site safety; the availability of staff and resources; safe transport; emergency procedures and supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), mostly in the form of hand sanitiser, gloves and face masks.

Cllr Sue Sanderson, cabinet member member for schools and learning at the county council, said: “It’s a real challenge for everyone and it’s been made doubly difficult by short timeframes and changing guidance from the government.

“There seems to have been a sudden decision made by the government to reopen schools in June, which has taken everyone by surprise. You don’t seem to get much evidence of what the government has based their decision off in the paperwork provided.

“When the government decided this, as far as I understand, they hadn’t consulted any of the unions. Some of the guidance is frankly insulting to head teachers.

“We are relying on the good judgment and experience of individual schools. And of course it will be also down to parents, who we will support - whatever they decide to do here.

“We are producing a risk audit for schools. So any decisions they make about opening or remaining closed is based on similar criteria.”

The government guidance for the reopening of schools includes reducing class sizes, keeping children in small groups without mixing with others, staggering break and lunch times, and school arrival and departure times, and cleaning more frequently.

In a joint statement, Sue Blair, chair of the Cumbria Primary Heads Association and Judith Schafer, chair of the Cumbria Association of Secondary Headteachers, said: “Since the end of March many schools have had to face unprecedented times dealing with the most significant public health crisis we have ever seen. It should come as no surprise to anyone who lives in Cumbria that the professionalism and dedication of school staff over the last few weeks has been outstanding in every way.

“We are reassured that the county council are supporting schools to find local solutions that are appropriate for their context, the needs of young people and their communities. The challenge for all schools will be to ensure the quality of education remains high within the constraints of risk assessments, including safe staffing levels and PPE.

“Please be assured that schools will continue to work tirelessly for young people and that we are reassured that Cumbria's system leadership will continue provide the much needed support for us all.”

Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, said: “We all would like to see schools reopen as soon as possible.

“The problem is the evidence that head teachers are looking for about whether children can carry and spread the disease is still very sketchy.

“Social distancing is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for children aged five and six.

“So I think if head teachers have big concerns about the safety of pupils, parents and staff, they should absolutely have the right to not reopen their school on June 1 – and we should support them in that decision.”

Gazette readers and parents have been at variance over what approach to take, as the planned return date nears.

Tzena English said she thought it was ‘way too soon’ to begin readmitting school pupils at pre-pandemic levels.

“I will not be sending my Year 10 twins back to school in any hurry, since one of them takes immune suppressants as he has Crohns Disease and therefore is at great risk,” she said.

“And his brother cannot attend school as he would be putting his brother at great risk by mingling with others in the school environment. Plus both boys are asthmatic, so a risk really for both.”

Stuart Parker, meanwhile, said he was ‘very happy’ to send his son back.

“He’s in year 6, the risk is extremely low to kids. They are barely affected by COVID-19 thankfully.”

Leone Edwards said: “ I have children at three different schools all in the proposed age groups that can go back in June.

“The main thing if we choose to keep our kids off or send them to school no parent should be judged. We all do right for our own children.”