LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) — Children return to school in England on Monday for the first time since January, as the government begins to ease tough restrictions thanks to a mass vaccination drive against the coronavirus.
Throughout the latest lockdown since the start of the new year, schools have remained open to children of key workers and the most vulnerable.
But all other youngsters have been at home, causing a headache for working parents, and fears about the effect on their learning.
Pupils aged five to 11 go back to the classroom Monday, with a staggered return over the coming week for secondary school students aged 11 to 18.
The government has been able to plan to ease its Covid-19 restriction measures as around 23 million people in Britain have received at least a first vaccination jab, helping to bring down case numbers and ease pressure on hospitals.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has outlined plans to lift stay-at-home curbs in England, hoping a cautious approach will not spark a renewed surge in cases that would force another lockdown.
Britain has suffered more than 123,000 Covid deaths and is banking on its mass vaccination drive to lift all restrictions possibly as early as June.
Under further plans for reopening, the government has said it will ease limits on social interaction outside on 29 March, with the reopening of non-essential retail from 12 April.
Schoolchildren returned to class after the Christmas break but were sent home again after just one day, to contain a more transmissible virus strain.
“The reopening of schools marks a truly national effort to beat this virus,” Johnson said ahead of Monday.
“It is because of the determination of every person in this country that we can start moving closer to a sense of normality -– and it is right that getting our young people back into the classroom is the first step.”
Returning students will face regular testing to curb the spread of infection, while older children will have to wear facemasks indoors until April.
Different plans for school returns have been unveiled across the other nations of the UK — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — where devolved governments have powers over education policy.
In Scotland, children aged four to seven returned last month and older students are due to follow — part-time — from March 15.
A similar timetable has been outlined in Wales, starting with those preparing for exams on the same date.