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U.K. Students Begin To Return To Classes During COVID-19 Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We travel next to England, where millions of students try to return to classrooms this week, months after the pandemic shut schools down. Shifting messages from the British government has left many confused. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Don't get her wrong. Hanna Gibson (ph) loves her kids, but after months at home, she really wants them back in school.

HANNA GIBSON: They dealt with it so well for such little kids. But everyone's getting to the point where - yep, sick of the sight of you. There's lots of bickering. It's increasingly hard to get them to sit down and focus on anything resembling schoolwork.

LANGFITT: Gibson, though, is especially anxious because her 5-year-old has a heart condition.

GIBSON: Nate (ph) had already been in hospital on and off since October with various typical winter viruses - things like common cold, chest infection, tonsillitis or requiring a bit of help with his oxygen levels for a while.

LANGFITT: And, meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are rising near where she lives in the northeast of England, and Gibson says sending her kids back will be a judgment call.

GIBSON: If I'm not confident that they can be kept safe at school, they won't be going.

LANGFITT: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is more bullish on this week's reopening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: Just for the sake of social justice, for ensuring that all our kids get the education they need, we need to get our people back to school in September. And I'm very, very impressed by the work that has been done to make those schools COVID secure.

LANGFITT: But Johnson's government has created confusion by repeatedly changing its position on safety measures. For instance, the government first said students should not wear masks in schools. Then under public pressure last week, it made a U-turn and said it would leave the decision to principals.

ZAKI KAZI: It's not been clear in the slightest, but I think the goal posts are moving constantly.

LANGFITT: Zaki Kazi (ph) teaches psychology and sociology at a big public school in South London.

KAZI: It feels like these sorts of changes that are happening last minute shouldn't be happening.

LANGFITT: Does it affect in any way your confidence or other people at the school, their confidence, in the central government here?

KAZI: I think it does impact their confidence in the government, and I think the sense that we have got from parents and students is it just seems a little bit - well, for one, it's a bit, well (ph), shambolic

LANGFITT: By which people here mean a situation is a shambles. Despite mixed messages from the government, Kazi says his school has a detailed plan to prevent the virus' spread.

KAZI: There's a staggered start. So each year group will be coming in at slightly different times. When they arrive, they'll be arriving through different entrance points. We're going to do prerecorded assemblies, and then they will be played in the classrooms by the form tutors.

LANGFITT: Kazi will even have his own safety zone marked by tape on the floor, where he can lecture while social distancing.

KAZI: And the kids aren't allowed to step into that box. So I would just stay in my box, and that would mean that I don't have to necessarily wear my mask 'cause I'll be distant enough from all the kids.

LANGFITT: Which will still allow Kazi to use facial expressions, like an occasional scowl to keep students in line. COVID cases in the U.K. remain comparatively low, averaging under 1,200 a day over the past week. But they've been rising since early July. Jerry Glazier (ph) of the National Education Union is hopeful the country can avoid widespread school closures this fall.

JERRY GLAZIER: I was talking to a local public health official just last week, and he told me that they can now see the level of infection by street. So that gives an opportunity to tackle emerging spikes in the most effective way.

LANGFITT: But Glazier also says a big second wave could cause big problems. As he put it, we're all anxious about the future.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.