Most pupils in England are due back in primary school after the Christmas break this week – but many parents are deciding they feel safer keeping them at home.
Some primaries in London and parts of the South East are staying closed for two weeks due to the fast-spreading new strain of the virus.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he has “no doubt” that “schools are safe”.
Speaking on Sunday, he said the risk to children was “very, very low” and the benefit of education was “so huge”.
He told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “If you think about the history of the pandemic, we’ve kept schools going for a long, long time in areas where the pandemic has really been at really high levels.”
But Mr Johnson may struggle to convince some parents.
Caroline Crawford, from Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, has a nine-year-old son at primary school and a 13-year-old daughter at secondary.
While she says she supports the government, and recognises “that difficult decisions have had to be made and at short notice”, she does not agree with sending children back to school this week.
“I do not see how the government can be willing to open schools and increase contacts when cases are already incredibly high and increasing,” she told the BBC.
She added: “I am hoping that there will be a change and that secondary schools will continue remote learning after the 18th but I contacted my son’s school today to request for my son to work from home as I am not comfortable with him being in school.”
Brighton and Hove Council has advised primary schools to stay closed meaning Gemma Cocker’s five-year-old son Charlie will not be going to school while her daughter Lyla, who is four, may still be able to go to nursery.
Gemma and her husband have been working from home since March, but now they will once again have to add childcare to the mix.
“We’ll try to home-school him,” she said of Charlie. “He regressed a little bit last time, he’s young in the year.”
The 36-year-old added: “The whole thing is ridiculous, can a decision just be made? At a time when many parents are returning to work next week, to have this uncertainty is adding to already stressed-out families.
“Morally, I think they should close, but practically, no. It’s a hard one.”
But Charlotte Clarke, a solicitor and mother-of-two who lives in East Sussex, is angry some people are petitioning to keep schools closed.
She said it was “physically impossible” to do her job and teach her children – a son in Year Six and a daughter in Year One.
She told the BBC: “If my children’s school closes I will not support learning from home. I am the main breadwinner so have to work.
“I strongly support schools staying open.
“It’s all good and well saying the schools should be closed but I’m more concerned about the kids’ mental health than whether they get Covid.
“I’m more concerned about the economy. We’ve followed the guidelines. We haven’t left the house other than to food shop.
“I appreciate the necessity to keep safe, but if it’s out of control, what difference could closing the schools do now?”
Anna Louise, from Cumbria, says she doesn’t feel it’s safe to send children back to school – and queries why London is being treated differently.
The mum-of-two, whose partner is a key worker, said: “I feel that Boris Johnson is being completely ignorant to this situation.
“As a mum to a 10-year-old and a six-month-old, I personally don’t feel it’s safe to send primary school children back on Tuesday.
“Why is London an exception to the rule when two thirds of the UK are also in tier four?”
She said the circumstances were different now to in March, with the new strain being more prominent in children.
“The last thing I want to happen is for my 10-year-old to go back to school and come into contact with someone who has Covid-19 and bring it home to our new baby,” she said. “My partner is also a key worker and so has no choice but to go to work.
“Teachers’ unions have said that if teachers feel unsafe then they won’t have to go in, but as parents will we be penalised for keeping our children safe at home and not sending them into school?”
Melanie Goddard lives in Groombridge, on the Kent-East Sussex border – with both counties in tier four. While they live on the Kent side, where her daughter’s nursery is, her son’s school is in East Sussex, in the authority of Wealden.
“I’m inclined to keep them both home, but we’re waiting to see,” she said, explaining that cases in Wealden are on the rise, but not in Tunbridge Wells where the nursery is.
“Some of East Sussex is set to close. Tunbridge is set to close. A lot of the surrounding areas are closed, but Wealden isn’t.”
She added: “There doesn’t seem to be clear science behind this. My inclination is to keep my son home, my husband wants to see. [My son] is due back on Tuesday, there may be another U-turn.
“If it’s safe, I can’t see the logic. Two miles away it isn’t safe. I know they’ve got to draw the line somewhere. It’d just be nice to have some reasoning behind it.”
She said it was difficult not knowing “where the end in sight is going to be”, but added: “Homeschooling is hard, but we’ll persevere.”
Most primary schools in England will return on 4 January, but in London and some surrounding areas they will not open for most pupils until 18 January. Secondary schools in England will stagger their return with pupils taking exams in 2021 starting on 11 January, and other year groups returning in person on 18 January.
In Wales, local councils have been told they can be “flexible” with when they open – with many schools aiming to return for face-to-face lessons from 11 January.
In Northern Ireland, primary school pupils will be taught online until 11 January. In secondary schools, years 8 to 11 will be taught online throughout January. Years 12 to 14 will return to school after the first week of January.
In Scotland, the Christmas holidays have been extended to 11 January, and the following week will be online learning only. A full return to face-to-face learning is planned for 18 January but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has warned measures may have to go further with a cabinet meeting to be held on Monday.
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