Schools reopening: Pupils back TODAY as minister confirms kids won't be kicked out the classroom for not wearing a mask
MILLIONS of kids across England returned to school this morning as a minister said teenagers who refuse to wear a mask shouldn't be kicked out of the classroom.
Pupils up and down the country headed back to lessons for the first time since December, with a huge mass testing operation under way and extra Covid precautions in place.
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Boris Johnson has insisted the country is now "ready" for the return of schools with cases, hospitalisations, and deaths having all plunged in recent weeks.
He said now "the risk is actually in not going back to school given all the suffering, all the loss of learning we have seen" and that he's "very hopeful" that things will go “according to plan".
Secondary school pupils will be asked to take three tests at school over the next two weeks, and after that will be provided with two tests a week to carry out at home.
They will also be strongly encouraged to wear masks in the classroom until at least the Easter holidays.
Primary school kids won't have to don face coverings, but extra guidance has been introduced saying visitors and staff should use them in areas where social distancing between adults isn't possible such as corridors.
Children's minister Vicky Ford said she expects most students to voluntarily use masks but insisted they shouldn't be forced to.
She said: "It's a hugely exciting day and a huge relief to so many children, families, schools, staff all across the country.
"There will be some who will be nervous about going back, but we've put in these extra measures so we can make sure we keep Covid out of the classroom.
"That is a whole extra layer of keeping Covid out of the classroom, but we need to also set this aside against a very different backdrop to in January.
"We've had the fantastic vaccination programme. That does give us that extra level of protection against the virus as we bring children back into school."
Asked what teachers can do if students refuse to wear a mask, Ms Ford stressed ministers haven't made them mandatory.
She said: "Nobody should be denied an education because they don't wear a mask but we do really strongly recommend it.
"There will be some students who will be exempt from wearing masks and we haven't made it mandatory though we're strongly encouraging it.
"The vast majority of teenagers want to do everything they can to protect themselves from the virus, to protect their friends, their family, staff, and they understand the masks."
Ms Ford also insisted schools won't be closed again even if the R-rate does rise, saying that was the recommendation of scientists now that more than a third of adults have been vaccinated.
And she didn't rule out the possibility that children could get the jab in the future, saying Government scientists "will be looking at plans for the future' once all over-18s are jabbed.
A top scientist also moved this morning to reassure parents that schools are "absolutely" safe for children to return to.
Professor Calum Semple, who sits on the Government's Sage advisory group, said pupils are at lower risk of catching the virus.
He acknowledged it was "inevitable that we will see a rise in cases" as a result of adults mixing because "schools are a place of work".
And he said advice for teachers "is going to be wearing face masks, being really careful in the common room – their colleagues are more of a risk to them than the children."
Prof Semple said: "It's going to be difficult and it is going to mean some social distancing and face mask-wearing, good ventilation until really late summer when we've got the vast majority people vaccinated."
But as schools returned today there were fears the mass testing blitz could descend into farce at some schools because not enough parents have given consent for their children to be swabbed.
One headteacher in Halifax reported only a quarter of parents have agreed to have their children tested, while a school in Tower Hamlets says the “vast majority” opted out.
The reopening of schools today is the first step in the PM's four-stage roadmap out of lockdown, which hopes to see the entire country freed from restrictions on June 21.
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