The government and teachers’ unions should “stop squabbling and agree a plan” to reopen schools safely, the Children’s Commissioner for England has said.
Anne Longfield said many disadvantaged children were losing out from schools being closed for so long.
Teachers’ unions and the Department for Education have been arguing over whether it is safe to return to school.
But Ms Longfield said schools needed to open “as quickly as possible”.
This week the government set out plans to begin a phased reopening of primary schools in England from 1 June.
But they have faced criticism from a coalition of teachers’ unions, which have said it is still not safe to return to school.
Teachers’ leaders met the government’s scientific advisers on Friday, but no agreement on opening schools was reached.
The British Medical Association has backed teachers’ unions by saying Covid-19 infection rates are too high for England’s schools to reopen.
It has said opening schools should not be considered “until we have got case numbers much lower”.
But the children’s commissioner has now issued her own call for the dispute to settled, and for stronger safety measures to be introduced, such as regular testing for pupils and teachers.
“I am disappointed that the debate about when some primary school kids can return has descended into a squabble between government and the teaching unions,” said Ms Longfield.
“All sides need to show a greater will to work together in the interests of children.”
Schools have been closed by the coronavirus since 20 March, with lessons from schools moving online.
But Ms Longfield said that the most deprived and vulnerable children were the most likely to be falling behind and there was a growing “disadvantage gap”.
“We know that the longer schools are closed the greater the impact will be on social mobility and that many children are really struggling without seeing their friends and the structure that school brings.
“We need to face the reality that for a number of reasons there are hundreds of thousands of children who can’t access meaningful education at home.”
She backed plans to bring back children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.
“But we should have an aspiration that all children return to school in some form before the summer and that school buildings are used for activities, summer schools and family support over the holidays.”
In response, Mary Bousted, co-leader of the National Education Union, said: “We all want schools to open, as soon as it is safe to do so.”
She said the teachers’ union would “look at the evidence” and “make an informed judgement” about the timing of reopening schools.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Getting children back to school and nurseries is in their best interests and all those working in education have a duty to work together to do so.
“We welcome the children commissioner’s support for a phased return of children to primary school with many of the measures she raises, like staggering drop-off and pick-up times, keeping children in smaller groups and regular hand washing, already in train.”
Schools in Wales will not be going back on 1 June and it is not expected that schools in Scotland or Northern Ireland will go back before the summer break.
In other developments:
- The public is being urged to “think twice” before heading to England’s beaches and country parks this weekend, despite the easing of lockdown rules
- The government’s scientific advisers warned that the coronavirus infection rate – known as “R” – is close to returning to the level where the virus starts spreading rapidly
- US President Donald Trump has promised the country will reopen “vaccine or no vaccine”, as he announced an objective to deliver a coronavirus jab by year end
- All residents and members of staff in care homes in England will be tested for coronavirus by early June, Health Secretary Matt Hancock pledged
- A lawnmower company closed its factory in County Durham for a 10-day deep clean after 18 employees contracted Covid-19
- Special “Covid dogs” that may be able to detect symptoms of coronavirus before they begin will start trials in the UK
A further 384 coronavirus deaths were recorded in the UK on Friday, as it was revealed there were 8,312 deaths linked to coronavirus in care homes in England and Wales up to 1 May, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Some 133,784 coronavirus tests were recorded, with 69,590 people tested up to 09:00 on 15 May – 3,560 of whom tested positive.