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English schools reopen under pressure after COVID-19 closure

LONDON (Reuters) – Schools in England and Wales will finally reopen to all pupils for a new term on Tuesday after being forced to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to exams being cancelled and chaos over pupils’ grades.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had promised to resume schools before the summer break, but had to put those plans on hold, leading to criticism of his government’s handling of education during the crisis.

The Ministry of Education said a “control system” would be put in place to ensure the safety of students and teachers, while maintaining social distancing whenever possible.

“I do not underestimate how challenging the last few months have been, but I know how important it is for children to get back to school, not just for their education but for their development and wellbeing,” said Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who has also come under pressure.

Schools closed their doors in March, except for the children of essential workers, and reopened in June to only a small number of students. An August study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that school closures have widened educational inequality between poor and rich students.

Concerns about an education divide deepened in August when the government bowed to pressure from angry students, teachers and politicians and abandoned an algorithm that had downgraded the A-level results of nearly 40 percent of school leavers, hitting students from deprived neighborhoods even harder.

“Labour wants and expects children to go back to school. Every day that schools were closed was a day that opportunities, learning and support were lost. This situation has been made worse by the exams debacle and the government’s chaotic approach to education,” said opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer.

“We must not repeat these mistakes again and again. The future of young people must not be compromised by the incompetence of the Conservatives.”

(Reporting by Alistair Smout and Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Catherine Evans)