Last reviewed 24 July 2020

New DfE guidance details how pupils will return to English classrooms this autumn in ‘bubbles’ and closed groups designed to minimise further Covid-19 infections, manage any new symptoms safely, and create and maintain a new normality. Jon Herbert reports.

After a five month absence, on the basis that “… the balance of risk is now overwhelmingly in favour of children returning to school”, the Department for Education has outlined in ‘Guidance for full opening: schools’ the Government’s strategic thinking for a very different return to the classroom.

For many schools, this could involve challenging logistical and emergency planning. However, the task has been broken down into key safety steps and responses. The main aim is to keep classes (primary) and whole year groups (secondary) strictly segregated.

If two or more Covid-19 cases are then confirmed subsequently within a 14 day period - or there is a rise in absences caused by Covid-like symptoms - whole bubbles, or even whole schools, may have to be sent home (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/nhs-test-and-trace-how-it-works#people-who-develop-symptoms-of-coronavirus).

Schools are also to be equipped with test kits for parents/carers to use with children who display symptoms; mobile testing units will be send to specific schools where outbreaks have been identified.

Practical steps

All schools are being urged to consider and implement other day-to-day measures.

These include: separate starting, finishing, lunch and break times; knowing how to use the NHS Test and Trace system (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/testing-and-tracing/); encouraging a continuation of regular hand-washing; making enhanced cleaning arrangements (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-decontamination-in-non-healthcare-settings); avoiding large group events such as assemblies; rearranging classrooms so that all desk facing forward; keeping different groups apart on buses, and making minimal use of public transport.

There is no general requirement at this point for staff or pupils to wear masks. However, all schools must draw up contingency plans for possible further local lockdowns.

Detailed guidance document

Getting schools working again is a priority. The Government wants to “start to review the enormous costs of missed education” and warns that parents could face fines for the non-attendance of nearly all children of legal school age unless they can show good reasons.

This includes children who have been shielding because they, or someone in their household, are extremely vulnerable clinically. Alternative provision pupils should also be able to return.

‘Guidance for full opening: schools’

The new arrangements are potentially complex. They apply to primary, secondary (including sixth forms), infant, junior, middle, upper, school-based nurseries and boarding schools – with independent schools expected to follow.

To avoid ambiguity, and make it easier to make and run preparations, the Department for Education (DfE) now offers a comprehensive and very detailed guidance document online - ‘Guidance for full opening: schools’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/actions-for-schools-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak/guidance-for-full-opening-schools).

This also applies to children with special educational needs and disability (SEND). Further guidance is available for early years, further education colleges and special schools.

Simplifying complexity

The DfE guidance has been prepared with input from school leaders, unions and sector bodies and in consultation with Public Health England (PHE and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and is organised in five sections:

  1. School leader action to minimise virus transmission risks

  2. School operations

  3. Curriculum, behaviour and pastoral support

  4. Assessment and accountability

  5. Contingency planning to provide continuous education in the case of local outbreaks.

It is important to read the full document for a complete understanding of requirements from an educational perspective. The specific points below refer mainly to health and safety aspects of a successful return by pupils and staff.

Health and economic risks

Autumn’s return is based on evidence that the risks of children becoming severely ill are low. Official Office of National Statistics (ONS) data shows that while it is not possible to ensure a totally risk-free environment, educational staff tend not to be at any greater risk from the virus than many other occupations. Parents and carers also need to return to work.

However, there are major negative health impacts from being out of school in terms of cognitive and academic development, particularly for disadvantaged children, that can effect both current learning levels and the future ability to learn.

Long absences may also translate into low academic achievements, long-term costs for the national economy, plus a less qualified workforce for a challenging future.

Section 1: Public health advice to minimise coronavirus (Covid-19) risks

DfE says that its guidance provides a framework that allows schools to be confident in managing their risks effectively. The first section sets out the public health advice that all schools must follow to minimise the transmission risks; it also includes the process to be followed should anyone develop coronavirus symptoms while at school.

The guidance content, developed with advice from PHE, creates a PHE-endorsed ‘system of controls’. These build on the hierarchy of protection measures already used through the current outbreak.

All ‘system of controls’ elements are essential; schools must cover them all according to their individual circumstances and in line with a revised risk assessment of local conditions. They should also work closely with parents, staff and unions. Some measures are a legal requirement.

It is important to remember that employers retain their full responsibilities to protect people from harm. Risk assessments are a major tool which should be sensibly and proportionately (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/actions-for-schools-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak/guidance-for-full-opening-schools#A). Employers should also follow the established health and safety system of controls to reduce risks to the lowest reasonably practicable level.

Specific Section 1 requirements

It is important to note that this section emphasises key basic principles which continue to apply through all other sections and include – people who are ill staying at home; robust hand and respiratory hygiene; enhanced cleaning; active NHS Test and Trace; reduced contacts and maximised distancing.

These actions break down further where possible into: - grouping children together; avoiding inter-group contacts; forward-facing desks; staff; and pupil distancing.

Full details are given in the guidance.

Prevention and response

Following on from a revised risk assessment, the system of controls schools need to take on board is divided into “prevention” and “response to any infections”.

Prevention priorities are again listed to include: - minimising contacts with unwell people; thorough hand-washing; good respiratory “catch it, bin it, kill it” hygiene; frequently cleaned surfaces; minimum contact and social distancing; plus the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) where needed.

Responding to infection includes; - engaging with NHS Test and Trace; managing confirmed virus cases; and containing outbreaks with local health protection team advice.

Response to any infections

In the event of new infections occurring, schools must be able to: - understand the NHS Test and Trace process; be ready to combat further infection with local PHE health protection teams. They must also: - prepare staff to be ready and willing to a) book a test (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-getting-tested), b) provide details of close contacts, and c) self-isolate (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-stay-at-home-guidance/stay-at-home-guidance-for-households-with-possible-coronavirus-covid-19-infection).

By autumn, schools should be supplied with a small number of testing kits for parents/carers collecting a child with symptoms; ditto staff members.

Other considerations

Groups and bubbles - Useful practical advice is also given on how to group children, especially the youngest who cannot be socially distanced from staff or each other. Groups or bubbles work effectively if there is no mixing; this makes it quicker and easier to identify those who may need to self-isolate while keeping numbers as small as possible.

Curriculums - It is also noted that if infection rates fall and a full range of curriculum subjects is needed, the formation and size of bubbles and groups may need to be adjusted.

In secondary schools at key stage 4 and key stage 5, groups may be defined as whole-year groups to deliver all curriculum subjects and specialist teaching. In primary schools and key stage 3, smaller groups may be full-class size. There are usually sensible local options.

Staff mobility - Teachers and staff can work across different classes and year groups but should try to distance themselves from pupils and co-workers. Teachers should also stay at the front of classes. Staff room use should be minimal, though staff breaks are essential. Supply and peripatetic teachers/staff can also move between schools with adequate safety measures.

Recruitment should also continue with requisite safety checks and schools are strongly encourage to consider hosting ITT trainees. Demand for teacher training is high with a risk that insufficient training places will be available. However, trainees can have other useful roles.

Staff also need holidays. With travel abroad, return travel arrangements could be disrupted if quarantine is involved. School leaders should consider temporary working arrangements such as working from home.

Timetabling – The working day should be organised to avoid busy corridors, entrances and foyer areas. School and classroom starting, finishing times should also be staggered, as should travelling times, with no school-gate gathering or unannounced visits.

Masks, pens, books and games – Well-understood processes for removing and disposing of face coverings are also needed. Frequently-used pens, pencils and other equipment should not be shared; books and games in a bubble can be shared with regular cleaning. Outdoor equipment must be cleaned more often (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-on-phased-return-of-sport-and-recreation).

Section 2 – school operations

Continuing from Section 1, this section further defines practical issues, such as social distancing in transport. Here, the distinction is made between dedicated school transport – only carrying pupils who do not mix with the general public – and public transport services.

Guidance is given on: - grouping people for transport; hand sanitising on joining and leaving vehicles, vehicle cleaning; queuing; distancing on-board; and face coverings for children over 11. Walking, cycling and ‘walking buses’ are also on the agenda. Families can also drive children to school.

Safeguarding - Schools may need to revise child protection policies led by the Designated Safeguarding Lead (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-safeguarding-in-schools-colleges-and-other-providers/coronavirus-covid-19-safeguarding-in-schools-colleges-and-other-providers) and (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/keeping-children-safe-in-education--2). Communication with school nurses is also important.

Catering - Kitchens will be fully open but must comply with https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-guidance-for-food-businesses/guidance-for-food-businesses-on-coronavirus-covid-19. Breakfast and after-school provisions can restart.

School trips - Educational visits overseas or with a UK overnight stay are still not advised (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-travel-advice-for-educational-settings/coronavirus-travel-guidance-for-educational-settings).

Uniforms - school uniforms can play and valuable role in school ethos and tone but do not have to be cleaned more often than usual, or by different methods.

Behavioural expectations – these are also covered in the guidelines (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/behaviour-and-discipline-in-schools).

Section 4 – assessment and accountability

State-funded and independent school routine Ofsted inspections remain suspended, although sample schools may be visited to see how new systems are working.

Section 5 – Contingency planning for outbreaks

In the event of local infection spikes, measures may be taken to control the spread. Where a class, group or small number of pupils need to self-isolate, schools are expected to provide immediate remote education (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/actions-for-schools-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak/guidance-for-full-opening-schools#res).

Government guidance

The Government’s requirement for an early autumn 2020 return to the classroom by nearly all pupils and teaching staff in England must consider all aspects of Covid-19. School employers and leaders are required by law to consider and mitigate the risks that staff, pupils and young people face as far as is reasonably practicable.

To help, the Department for Education online document – ‘Guidance for full opening: schools’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/actions-for-schools-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak/guidance-for-full-opening-schools) – gives extremely detailed advice in five sections.

  1. School leader action to minimise virus transmission risks.

  2. School operations.

  3. Curriculum, behaviour and pastoral support.

  4. Assessment and accountability.

  5. Contingency planning to provide continuous education in the case of local outbreaks.

Conclusion

Schools will need to ensure they have policies and action plans in place to deal with the following requirements to ensure a Covid-secure environment.

  • 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.