The UK government on Thursday unveiled plans for the compulsory reopening of all schools in England from September after months of closure due to the coronavirus lockdown, on the broad principle of keeping classes apart in separate "bubbles".
Besides a host of safety measures to be put in place by individual schools, if there are two confirmed coronavirus cases in a 14-day period, all the pupils in that class bubble, or in some cases even the whole school, may have to be sent home.
"I know these past three months have been some of the most challenging that schools have faced," said UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who made the announcement in a House of Commons statement.
"Nothing can replace being in the classroom, so ever since schools, colleges and nurseries closed to most children, we have been working hard to ensure they can reopen as soon as possible. We have already seen more than 1.5 million children and young people return, but we must make sure all pupils can go back to school in September, giving them the opportunity to thrive and fulfill their potential," he said.
The Department for Education said that its guidance, developed in close consultation with the sector and medical experts, provides schools, colleges and nurseries with the details needed to plan for a full return, as well as reassuring parents about what to expect for their children.
"I want to reassure parents and families that we are doing everything we can to make sure schools, nurseries, colleges and other providers are as safe as possible for children and staff, and will continue to work closely with the country's best scientific and medical experts to ensure that is the case," added Williamson.
The government said that COVID-19 secure measures will remain in place to reduce the risk of transmission, with schools being asked to keep children in class or year group sized "bubbles" and encourage older children to keep their distance from each other and staff where possible. This is alongside protective measures such as regular cleaning and handwashing.
Where an outbreak in a school is confirmed, for specific detailed investigations a mobile testing unit may be dispatched to test others who may have been in contact with the person who has tested positive.
Testing will first focus on the person's class, followed by their year group, then the whole school if necessary. Schools will be expected to have plans in place to offer remote education to pupils who are self-isolating.
"A child's education is essential to their healthy development - we know that missing too much school can have a negative impact on children's mental and physical wellbeing," said Dr Jenny Harries, England's Deputy Chief Medical Officer.
"Everybody wants children to be safe and thankfully as we have learned more about COVID-19, the evidence has shown that the risk of severe disease in children is low. However, although the number of COVID-19 cases has declined, it is still in general circulation - so it is important we ensure schools implement sensible precaution to reduce potential transmission of COVID-19 and minimise any risk to teachers and their pupils," she said.
The government said that to ensure pupils can catch up on lost learning, schools will be required to resume teaching a broad and balanced curriculum in all subjects, making use of existing flexibilities to create time to address gaps in knowledge, with a view to conducting exams in 2021.
Nurseries and other early years providers, including childminders, have already been operational in England with a range of protective measures in place.
The devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will set out their specific strategies based on the UK government guidance.