Pupils across England will return to the classroom on Monday for the first time since January, in the initial stage of the government’s new “roadmap” back to normality.
But an exclusive poll for The Independent shows 37 per cent of people believe the government is moving too swiftly when it comes to schools.
Almost a third, 32 per cent, believe the timing is about right, while 25 per cent believe it should have come sooner and 7 per cent say they don’t know.
Another two-thirds, 64 per cent, say young people’s education is less important than closing schools to stop children the spread of Covid-19.
The results highlight the gamble ministers are taking as they try to persuade parents it is safe for their children to return to school.
One leading teaching union said it was “not surprised” by the results and that ministers should have organised a more phased return of pupils.
On Sunday, Boris Johnson hailed what he says has been a “truly national effort to beat” the virus that has allowed schools to reopen.
Ministers say nearly 57 million lateral flow test kits have already delivered to schools and colleges, ahead of a new mas testing scheme for pupils.
But a note of caution has been sounded by Dr Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser to NHS Test and Trace.
She said the infections rates were now low enough that it was “better that students are now back in the classroom”.
But she added: “Outside of schools, it remains crucial that current restrictions are followed.”
Chris Hopkins, from Savanta ComRes, which carried out the poll, said: “Throughout the pandemic, public opinion has been on the cautious side, and while the government have adopted a similar approach through 2021, the public are still more cautious than the government when it comes to reopening schools, with marginally more saying that schools should open them later than planned, as opposed to those who say the government have got this one right.
“If a rise in coronavirus cases follows the reopening of schools and pushes the roadmap back, the public may begin to question the government’s strategy.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said her organisation was “not surprised” that over a third of the public feel a full return to school for all pupils is too soon.
“We strongly believe that the government should have planned for a phased return to the classroom for pupils, ensuring that the wider reopening of schools and colleges is as safe and sustainable as possible.”
“Once again, the government has failed to listen to the profession at the cost of a smooth, safe and sustainable return to schools for our pupils and education staff.”
The results of the poll come amid warnings the country should not “blow it” when schools reopen next week.
The government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) has warned that opening schools could increase the ‘R’ rate, the rate at which the infection spreads.
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the SPI-M group, which advises the government, said the next few weeks would be “crucial” in the battle against the global pandemic.
Parents should maintain social distancing and other rules while dropping their children off at school, he said.
“Just because you’re not in the home with your young children don’t use it as an excuse to go out and mix with other people that you otherwise wouldn’t have done,” he told Times Radio.
“It’s possible with schools open we can keep the R number below one but if we are going to achieve that we all need to keep following all the other rules.”
Falling Covid-19 rates are most likely due to the current lockdown measures, and the impact of millions of vaccinations “hopefully is yet to come”, he added.
He said: “I think most of the reason the numbers are going in the right direction now is still due to lockdown.
“I think we haven’t quite seen the impact of vaccinations, probably start to come in round about now and having a little bit of an effect, but most of the effect thus far actually is probably the fact we have been under severe restrictions since the start of January.”
Professor Sir Ian Diamond, head of the Office for National Statistics, warned that while lockdown had been a “success” the UK was “still not out of the woods”.
“While we have seen major reductions, we are still relatively high,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I’m in very much the view that we should do everything we can not to blow it nationally.
“We have done fantastically well in the last couple of months but we are not completely out of the woods yet.”
He added that it was “very difficult” to separate the effect of the lockdown from the impact of the government’s mass vaccination programme, but it was clear both were playing a role.
Savanta ComRes polled 2,321 adults on 1 March.