Last reviewed 19 October 2020

Schools have gone to great lengths to make a safe and healthy autumn return to the classroom possible. Despite high attendance figures, many heads report practical problems and a shortage of advice. The Government has updated its Covid-19 guidance. Jon Herbert reports.

Seven months in from a the start of a national lockdown, and two months after a complex return of pupils to the classroom guided by a detailed DfE strategy with plans for managing a potential rise in Covid-19 infection cases, schools and colleges are facing vexing safety problems.

Some statistics are concerning, other might be reassuring. However, in the last three months the Department for Education has updated and further clarified key parts of its mid-year advice while also increasing resources for heads in England who in many cases feel they have been left to cope with both educational and safety issues largely on their own.

The second part of this article looks at updated autumn guidance. However, to understand what ongoing changes mean, we start with a brief overview of recent events on the ground.

For further clarity, DfE also published in September “Keeping children safe in education – statutory guidance for schools and colleges”.

This uses the term “must” to indicate when a specific person is legally required to do something, and “should” when actions are to be followed unless there is a good reason not to. There are parallel documents for staff and children (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/keeping-children-safe-in-education--2).

A moving picture

Clearly, circumstances can and are changing quickly as the current health emergency evolves.

End-September/early-October survey figures showed that while some 88% of pupils did return to a very difference classroom in the autumn, some 16%, or just under one-in-six, of England’s secondary schools were forced to send some pupils home as suspected Covid-19 infection cases. The latest data indicates that in Week 41 this rose to some 21%.

Statistics also showed that autumn primary school infection rates have been lower; only 5% - most recently updated to 7% - sent children home with the recommendation that they take a virus test.

Weekly DfE figures based on responses from circa 80% of state schools show overall attendance hovering at around 90%; only an estimated 0.2% of schools are said to be completely closed.

Even so, many head teachers are reported to be extremely concerned about a prolonged fall in “open schools” able to provide face-to-face teaching for all pupils on a whole school day basis where no students are asked the self-isolate and rely on remote education.

Who should stay and who should go?

One complication has been that schools have also had to send home classmates of pupils showing symptoms. There are also concerns about non-symptomatic children known to be infected. However, figures suggest that fewer pupils – and not whole year groups – are now being sent home.

General Secretary of the Association of School and Collages Leaders, Geoff Barton, believes the situation puts schools increasingly “on the frontline of managing the public health emergency” while also delivering education. He also wants government to reimburse schools for safety measure costs.

However, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, said he was encouraged that most schools were open with an estimated snapshot figure of 7.2 million pupils in class. He commented that, “Only a small minority of pupils are currently self-isolating and there is remote education provision in place for the short time they are unable to attend school”.

He commented, “I’m hugely reassured schools have the right protection in place to reduce the spread of the virus, and am only asking class contacts of confirmed cases to self-isolate”.

Too many at home

This still meant that some one-in-20 were currently out of school with pandemic-related issues, according to the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield.

She noted that the number of secondary pupils at home was still small but that many more with special needs or emotional problems were yet to return from lockdown. Of some 8.89 million pupils in England in 2020 (https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/school-pupils-and-their-characteristics) 5% broadly means circa 440,000 not attending full time.

Getting Covid-19 tests quickly – which has been likened to finding Harry Potter tickets – was critical she added. Meanwhile, achieving the number of children who are back at school was “thanks to the heroic efforts of teachers and school staff”. She urged school and parents to “hold their nerve”.

Extra help with difficult decisions

Quoting further from official figures, Longfield said they also show that some 10% of children have been absent from the classroom but not necessarily with the virus; under normal conditions about 5% are ordinarily away on an average day.

She believes the figures have been increased by SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) children, plus troubled teenagers and others who will need extra support to return.

The commissioner also called for extra clarity about who really needs to be out of school and also appealed for public health office support in making “really difficult decisions” and with “difficult risk assessment” vital to keep places of learning open safely.

Making matters even worse, teachers with symptoms needing tests made it hard for small schools in particular to keep on functioning. Which is why teachers and pupils need priority testing along with health care professionals.

Seasonal colds and flu will increase the pressure on schools, she said. An additional concerns is children who may not show symptoms themselves but are part of a year group with people who might.

Testing confusion

A September National Association of Head Teachers survey which drew 736 responses from 30,000 members found that 82% had children absent because of a lack of tests and 87% while waiting for test results. Only 14% were actually away because of confirmed positive results. This is, of course, a changing picture.

In response, the Government reiterated that under present conditions schools only need to identify close contacts and ask them to self-isolate if and when a coronavirus case is confirmed by as positive test result. Close contacts must “… follow the full 14 days self-isolation period and should only seek a test if they have symptoms”.

Mandatory remote learning access

In early October, powers under a Temporary Continuity Directive within the Coronavirus Act 2020 were used to oblige schools to offer pupils out of school a remote learning equivalent to what they would get in class.

The Directive gives schools a duty to provide education at home that is equivalent to the classroom. Most schools have already done this on their own volition.

An additional 100,000 laptops computers are also to be made available for Years 3 – 11 with no current access to a device, disadvantaged, clinically extremely vulnerable children in all year groups who cannot return, plus those in hospital schools.

This is in addition to the current 150,000 already available and 220,000 delivered. Rather than closing schools completely, where infection rates are high the Government may also ask schools to move to a rota system of two weeks on and then two off.

More than £1 million extra funding is also earmarked for the EdTech Demonstration programme, a network providing peer-to-peer support for teachers and support workers which presently supports 3,400 schools and colleges; this is to be expanded by a further 1,000.

New guidance

The DfE mid-year requirements for autumn 2020 were for school employers and leaders to consider and mitigate the risks that staff, pupils and young people face as far as is reasonably practicable (https://app.croneri.co.uk/feature-articles/government-advice-safe-september-school-return#PO-DOCUMENT-ID_69722). The information on this link – “Guidance for full opening: schools” - has now been updated but is still split into:

  • Section 1: Public health advice to minimise coronavirus (Covid19)

  • Section 2: School operations

  • Further sections on curriculum, behaviour and pastoral support, assessment and accountability, and contingency planning in the case of local outbreaks.

Specifically, maintained schools, non-maintained schools, independent schools, all providers on the early years register, and all providers registered with an early years childminder agency have been instructed to have policies and action plans in place to:

  • Separate pupils into discrete ‘bubbles’ or groups to minimise Covid-19 infection risks

  • Reorganise classrooms with forward-facing desks and minimum equipment sharing

  • Ensure that anyone with possible symptoms either stays at home or is sent home

  • Maintain robust hand and respiratory hygiene at all times, plus pupil distancing

  • Arrange for regular enhanced classroom and site cleaning

  • Be ready and able to use NHS Test and Trace

  • Make contingency plans for continuous education during any local virus outbreaks.

Risk assessments support is also available at www.gov.uk.

Updated advice

This has been updated (1 October 2020 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/actions-for-schools-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak/guidance-for-full-opening-schools) with changes to:

  • Managing confirmed coronavirus cases in school communities

  • The framework supporting transport to and from schools

  • Pupils shielding or self-isolating

  • Face coverings use in schools

  • Actions for all schools and local authorities recording attendance and absence

  • Employer health and safety and equalities duties

  • School support for supply teachers

  • Teacher performance management and appraisal

  • Music, dance and drama

  • Wraparound provision and extra-curricular activity

  • Physical activity

  • New resources for pupil wellbeing and support

  • Behaviour expectations

  • Primary assessment

  • Additional resources for delivering remote education

  • Changes to SEND legislation

Early years

Additional guidance for early years settings, including childminders, was issued in September 2020 – “Actions for early years and childcare providers during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak” – can be found at (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-early-years-and-childcare-closures/coronavirus-covid-19-early-years-and-childcare-closures) and covers:

Format changes made to make information easier to find include:

  • Added information on:

    • The use and disposal of face coverings (section 3)

    • Supervised tooth brushing programmes (section 3)

    • Process for local lockdowns (section 3)

    • Music, dance and drama (section 3)

    • Maximising use of sites and ventilation within settings (section 3)

    • Reopening of buildings (section 3)

    • Journeys, such as pick-ups and drop offs (section 3)

    • Attending more than one setting (section 3)

    • A child with symptoms attending a setting (section 3)

    • Pregnant women (section 3)

    • Visitors to settings, including new admissions and settling in (section 3)

    • Use of outdoor private and public spaces (section 5)

    • Informal childcare (section 5)

    • Supporting children’s and staff wellbeing (section 6)

    • New SEND legislation (section 6)

    • EYFS disapplications ending on 25 September 2020 (section 7)

    • Emergency first aid (section 7)

    • The Job Retention Bonus scheme (section 10)

  • Amended wording on:

    • Employer health and safety and equalities duties (section 3)

    • Staff who are clinically extremely vulnerable (section 3)

    • Children who are shielding or self-isolating (section 4)

    • Safeguarding (section 6)

  • Added an additional paragraph on managing coronavirus (COVID-19) cases (section 8)

  • Updated information on funding (section 10)

Further Education

Further education (FE) autumn term guidance” was also issued in September for leaders and staff in sixth form colleges, general FE colleges, independent training providers, designated institutions, adult community learning providers and special post-16 institutions. It covers:

Main changes refer to:

  • Implementing risk assessments

  • Good ventilation to reduce coronavirus spread

  • Face coverings in FE settings

  • managing confirmed coronavirus cases

  • Managing local outbreaks

  • Using public transport

  • Music, performing arts and physical activity

  • Remote and blended learning

  • Health and safety and equalities duties

  • Resuming educational visits

  • 16 to 19 tuition support fund

  • Traineeship delivery flexibilities 2020 to 2021

  • Data collection, allocations and payments timetable

  • Restarting routine funding audits

Government guidance

To continue a safe return of pupils to schools and colleges in England to the classroom, the Government has further updated its advice “Guidance for full opening: schools”.

This continues to build on guidance details provided on the same link in mid-summer but also highlights key changes, clarifications and amendments.

Also published are “Actions for early years and childcare providers during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak” – which can be found at www.gov.uk and “Further education (FE) autumn term guidance” at www.gov.uk.

It is also important to refer to “Keeping children safe in education – statutory guidance for schools and colleges”.