ST HELENS Council said it will support schools with the decisions they make regarding bringing more children back into the fold.

The government’s plans to open up schools more widely next month have been branded “reckless” by the National Education Union.

And several councils, including Liverpool, Wirral and Bury, have said they will defy Boris Johnson’s plans to bring back all pupils in reception, year one and year six from June 1 over safety fears.

READ > Headteachers voice concerns ahead of schools reopening

Over the weekend the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson said schools would only return if five tests have been met.

These include a national plan for social distancing in schools; tests available for staff and pupils; a whole-school strategy for safety, and a plan to protect vulnerable teachers.

The new case count must be much lower than it is now, with a sustained downward trend with confidence that new cases are tracked and traced.

In St Helens, the local authority said it continues to have “considerable consultation and engagement” with schools, nurseries, and trade unions in preparation for the wider opening.

St Helens Council said schools also continue to engage with parents to assess potential take-up and collate views from parents.

“St Helens Council is keen to ensure that children are able to return to school but only if it is safe to do so,” a council spokesman said.

“Our headteachers and governors are assessing whether the local demand, physical building capacity and teacher availability supports the achievement of five tests for individual schools.”

Schools have started to write to parents in preparation for the wider opening, with headteachers warning of the difficulties of maintaining social distancing.

The government has said its ambition is to bring all primary year groups back to school before the summer holidays, for a month “if feasible”, although this will be kept under review.

St Helens Star: St Helens Town HallSt Helens Town Hall

Andy Howard, secretary of the St Helens branch of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said expectations that all children in reception, year one and year six will be back on June 1 need to be managed as this is “not practical”.

And Mr Howard warned that social distancing with a full school – particularly among the youngest children – will be “impossible”.

“Headteachers are in a very difficult situation,” Mr Howard said.

“By the very nature of the job we do, we want the very best for children but at the moment it’s very difficult because we’ve also got a duty of care to staff, parents, as well as the pupils.

“We’re all working really hard in collaboration with the teaching unions and the local authority, to keep schools open for vulnerable groups and key worker children and look at how we can safely open wider for more pupils.

“And the key word there really is safely, and that’s the difficulty that everyone’s facing at the moment.”

Mr Howard,  who is also the headteacher of Legh Vale Primary School in Haydock, said schools are initially focused on welcoming back the vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.

Many schools have remained open throughout the pandemic for children of key workers, although places have been limited and it has been up to each individual school to decide who has priority.

Mr Howard said the demand for these places is “ever-increasing”, as key workers who have been furloughed, return to work.

Beyond these groups, schools will look at how it can safely bring in more pupils – including some of the youngest children – but this is where the real challenge lies.

“It will be impossible to do with social distancing,” Mr Howard said. “And that’s the sticking point really.

“Little children, by nature won’t socially distance. And if you’ve got little ones going to school you’ve got to manage the parents too with collection and drop-off.

“If we’re looking at getting more and more pupils back, it poses more and more difficulties.”

Mr Howard thinks the situation will be less perilous come September, with the infection rate and mortality rate much lower than it is now.

It is also expected that the government’s ‘track and trace’ system – aimed at tracing the spread of the virus – will be proving effective by then.

A mobile tracing app – a key part of the track and trace system – is not expected to be ready until June, several weeks later than Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it would be.

Cllr Sue Murphy, cabinet member for schools and education, said the council will continue to work with all headteachers and governors to decide whether – and crucially when – individual schools are able to open their school to the year groups proposed by government.

St Helens Star: Cllr Sue Murphy, St Helens Council's cabinet member for schools and education,Cllr Sue Murphy, St Helens Council's cabinet member for schools and education,

Ultimately, the decision will rest with school leaders themselves, and Cllr Murphy said the council will support them in whatever decision they come to.

“Throughout this crisis the council has given significant support to childcare providers, schools, and parents to make decisions about how best to support and educate children in their care,” Cllr Murphy said.

“We will continue to provide this support and guidance.

“We fully appreciate this is a complex situation, which is why we believe that decisions of this nature should be made at a local level by people who know their communities and their children best.

“St Helens Council will support our schools with the decisions that they make based on individual school circumstances.

“Parents will continue to be kept informed by their school and the council about the next steps to be taken.”