Primary schools in England could reopen to some year groups from 1 June “at the earliest”, says Boris Johnson.
The prime minister said a phased return to school would begin with pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6, if infection rates and the government’s other tests at the time allow it.
For most pupils, schools have been closed since 20 March.
But the National Education Union said the reopening plan was “nothing short of reckless”.
“At the earliest by June 1, after half term, we believe we may be in a position to begin the phased reopening of shops and to get primary pupils back into schools, in stages,” said Mr Johnson.
Secondary schools are likely to stay closed until September.
But the prime minister said there was an “ambition” to get secondary pupils facing exams next year – such as Years 10 and 12 – to get some time in school before the summer holidays.
“If we can’t do it by those dates, and if the alert level won’t allow it, we will simply wait and go on until we have got it right,” said Mr Johnson.
“If there are problems we will not hesitate to put on the brakes,” he said.
Mr Johnson, announcing the “first careful steps”, said it would be the oldest and some of the youngest in primary school who would go back first – Year 6 who would soon be moving to secondary school and to the Reception class and Year 1.
But his “roadmap” would mean the beginning of reopening schools in England, which are currently only open to the children of key workers and vulnerable children.
Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union, said it was important the date was not “set in stone”, because it was still not clear “how the reintroduction of such significant numbers of pupils in primary schools can be safely managed”.
He also said the question of protecting equipment for teachers remained unresolved, when social distancing in schools would be “problematic”.
“Unfortunately, we are not persuaded that either of these two simple tests has yet been met,” said Mr Barton.
Mary Bousted, co-leader of the National Education Union, rejected the plan, saying infection rates were too high for it to be safe.
“We must have a national plan for social distancing, hygiene, appropriate PPE and regular testing to ensure our schools and colleges don’t become hot spots for Covid-19,” said Dr Bousted.
Parents on the BBC’s Facebook page questioned how practical it would be to apply social distancing with young children.
“Reception and Year 1 will totally understand social distancing, right?” posted Rachel Marshall.
Leona Shergold said: “There is no way of keeping 4-5 year olds two metres apart from their friends.”
In Wales, the First Minister Mark Drakeford has already ruled out following the same timetable for unlocking schools.
“We’re not going to be reopening schools in Wales in the next three weeks, or indeed in June,” he said.
In Scotland, the government has warned that fully reopening primary schools ran the risk of “overwhelming” the NHS.
In Northern Ireland, Education Minister Peter Weir has spoken of a possible phased return of schools in September.
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