Last reviewed 18 May 2020

In its COVID-19 Recovery Strategy, the Government said that it wanted to begin a gradual return to work in England by way of a three-stage process. The second stage would begin no earlier than 1 June (subject to the most up-to-date assessment of the risk posed by the virus). Paul Clarke explores the guidance available for schools to prepare for a wider opening.

Phase two of the Recovery Strategy would see a phased return for early years settings and for children from Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to be back in school in smaller class sizes.

What the Recovery Strategy lacked was any detail of how these aims were to be achieved but further guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) has made it possible for this plan of action to be produced.

The five tests

Everything that follows is based on the assumption that the five tests set by the Prime Minister will have been met by 1 June. These are:

  • making sure the NHS can cope;

  • a 'sustained and consistent' fall in the daily death rate;

  • rate of infection decreasing to 'manageable levels';

  • ensuring supply of tests and PPE can meet future demand; and

  • being confident any adjustments would not risk a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS.

First steps

Assuming this to be the case, Actions for education and childcare settings to prepare for wider opening from 1 June 2020 confirms the suggested return plan outlined above and also asks secondary schools, sixth form and further education (FE) colleges to offer some face-to-face support to supplement the remote education of year 10 and year 12 students who are due to take key exams next year. This would be alongside the full-time provision they are already offering to priority groups.

It then goes on to suggest that:

  • alternative provision settings should offer some face-to-face support for year 10 and 11 students (as they have no year 12); and

  • special schools, special post-16 institutions and hospital schools should work towards a phased return of more children and young people without a focus on specific year groups.

By returning pupils gradually, it argues, settings can initially reduce the number of children and young people in classrooms compared to usual and put protective measures in place to reduce risks.

Key action points

Children will need to stay within their new class/group wherever possible and the following protective measures will need to be taken:

  • minimising contact with individuals who are unwell by ensuring that those who have coronavirus symptoms, or who have someone in their household who does, do not attend schools or colleges;

  • ensuring good respiratory hygiene by promoting the ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ approach;

  • cleaning frequently touched surfaces often, using standard products such as detergents and bleach;

  • minimising contact and mixing by altering, as much as possible, the environment (such as classroom layout) and timetables (such as staggered break times); and, for everyone,

  • washing hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with running water and soap and drying them properly or using alcohol hand rub or sanitiser ensuring that all parts of the hands are covered.

Should PPE be used?

The Government has made it clear that wearing a face covering in schools or other education settings is not recommended. It also states that the majority of staff in education settings will not require personal protective equipment (PPE) beyond what they would normally need for their work, even if they are not always able to maintain a distance of two metres from others.

However, children, young people and students whose care routinely already involves the use of PPE due to their intimate care needs should continue to receive their care in the same way. The only other exception would be if a child or young person becomes unwell with symptoms of coronavirus and needs direct personal care until they can return home.

In that case, a fluid-resistant surgical face mask should be worn by the supervising adult if a distance of two metres cannot be maintained. If contact with the child or young person is necessary, then disposable gloves, a disposable apron and a fluid-resistant surgical face mask should be worn by the supervising adult. Should a risk assessment determine that there is a risk of splashing to the eyes - for example from coughing, spitting or vomiting - then eye protection should also be worn. Local supply chains should be used to obtain PPE or, failing that, an approach can be made to the nearest local resilience forum.

Protecting the clinically vulnerable

Staff with serious underlying health conditions which put them at very high risk of severe illness from coronavirus (those classed as “clinically extremely vulnerable”) are advised not to attend work.

“Clinically vulnerable” individuals who are at higher risk of severe illness (for example, people with some pre-existing conditions) have been advised to take extra care in observing social distancing and should work from home. If this is not possible, they should be offered the safest available on-site roles, staying two metres away from others wherever possible, although the individual may choose to take on a role that does not allow for this distance if they prefer to do so. If they have to spend time within two metres of other people, settings must carefully assess and discuss with them whether this involves an acceptable level of risk.

Staff and pupils in all settings will be eligible for testing if they become ill with coronavirus symptoms, as will members of their households. A child/young person or a member of staff who lives with someone who is clinically vulnerable (but not clinically extremely vulnerable), including those who are pregnant, can attend their education setting.

Be prepared

Before any wider opening takes place, settings are advised to consider the following preparatory work:

  • refresh risk assessments and other health and safety advice for children, young people and staff in light of recent government advice, identifying protective measures;

  • organise small class groups (as described below);

  • consider which lessons or classroom activities could take place outdoors;

  • adjust the timetable and consider the availability of resources in order to reduce movement around the school or building;

  • stagger drop-off and collection times, assembly groups and break times (including lunch);

  • plan parents’ drop-off and pick-up protocols to minimise adult-to-adult contact;

  • aim to reduce any unnecessary travel on coaches, buses or public transport where possible; and

  • for secondary schools and colleges, consider how best to supplement remote education with some face-to-face support for students.

Class or group sizes

Children, young people and staff should, where possible, only mix in a small, consistent group and that small group should stay away from other people and groups. Public Health England (PHE) has said that if schools and colleges do this, and crucially if they are also applying regular hand cleaning, hygiene and cleaning measures and handling potential cases of the virus as per the advice, then the risk of transmission will be lowered.

For primary schools, classes should normally be split in half, with no more than 15 pupils per small group and one teacher (and, if needed, a teaching assistant). If there are any shortages of teachers, then teaching assistants can be allocated to lead a group, working under the direction of a teacher. Desks should be spaced as far apart as possible.

For secondary schools and colleges, the same principle of halving classes will normally apply with sitting positions two metres apart. Where very small classes might result from halving, it would be acceptable to have more than half in a class, provided the space has been rearranged. While in general groups should be kept apart, brief, transitory, contact such as passing in a corridor is considered to be low risk.

Any setting that cannot achieve these small groups at any point should discuss options with their local authority or trust. This might be because there are not enough classrooms / spaces available in the setting or because they do not have enough available teachers / staff to supervise the groups. Solutions might involve children attending a nearby school (on a consistent basis).

Attendance

Families should notify their school/college as normal if their child is unable to attend so that staff can explore the reason with them and address barriers together. Parents will not be fined for non-attendance at this time, and schools and colleges will not be held to account for attendance levels. Schools and colleges should continue to inform social workers where children with a social worker do not attend. They should resume taking their attendance register and continue to complete the online Educational Setting Status form which gives the DfE daily updates on how many children and staff are attending.

There is a continuing expectation that vulnerable children and young people of all year groups will attend educational provision, where it is safe and appropriate for them do so. As under the current guidance, where these children and young people are currently not attending but attendance is appropriate, providers and local authorities are expected to consider how to encourage their attendance.

Special schools

Special schools, special post-16 institutions and hospital schools may want to prioritise attendance based on key transitions and the impact on life chances and development, and to consider creating part-time attendance rotas so that as many children as possible can benefit from attending their setting. They should work with local authorities and families to ensure that decisions about attendance are informed by existing risk assessments for their children and young people, which should be kept up to date.

Sixth form and further education colleges

Sixth form colleges should offer some face-to-face support to students in year 12 to supplement their remote education, alongside their offer to priority groups. FE colleges should do the same for students who are in the equivalent of year 10 and year 12, who are studying for key examinations next academic year, along with those in priority groups.

Curriculum

Where year groups are returning to school, the DfE has said that it expects school leaders and teachers to:

  • consider their pupils’ mental health and wellbeing and identify any pupil who may need additional support so they are ready to learn;

  • assess where pupils are in their learning, and agree what adjustments may be needed to the school curriculum over the coming weeks;

  • identify and plan how best to support the education of high needs groups, including disadvantaged pupils, and SEND and vulnerable pupils; and

  • support pupils in Year 6, who will need both their primary and secondary schools to work together to support their upcoming transition to Year 7.

It should be noted that no school will be penalised if they are unable to offer a broad and balanced curriculum to their pupils during this period. No examinations or assessments will take place this term and Ofsted will continue to pause routine inspection.

Staff workload and wellbeing

Governing boards and senior leaders should be conscious of the wellbeing of all staff, including senior leaders themselves, and the need to implement flexible working practices in a way that promotes good work-life balance and supports teachers and leaders. Workload should be carefully managed and schools and colleges should assess whether staff who are having to stay at home due to health conditions are able to support remote education, while others focus on face-to-face provision.

Added costs

The fund for schools to cover specific additional costs as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak remains open and should be used as appropriate. Access to the wider business support schemes, including Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), can continue to be used for staff typically paid for through private income, on condition that the principles in the DfE’s sector specific guidance continue to be met.

Keep everyone informed

Making sure that everyone involved is up-to-date on the latest safeguard measures and requirements is seen as particularly important.

Education settings should consider the following:

  • tell children, young people, parents, carers or any visitors, such as suppliers, not to enter the education setting if they are displaying any symptoms of coronavirus;

  • tell parents that, if their child needs to be accompanied to the education setting, only one parent should attend;

  • tell parents and young people their allocated drop off and collection times and the process for doing so, including protocols for minimising adult-to-adult contact (for example, which entrance to use);

  • make clear to parents that they cannot gather at entrance gates or doors, or enter the site (unless they have a pre-arranged appointment, which should be conducted safely);

  • ensure parents and young people are aware of recommendations on transport to and from the education setting (including avoiding peak times);

  • talk to staff about the plans (for example, safety measures, timetable changes and staggered arrival and departure times), including discussing whether training would be helpful;

  • communicate early with contractors and suppliers that will need to prepare to support the plans for opening - for example, cleaning, catering, food supplies and hygiene suppliers; and

  • discuss with cleaning contractors or staff the additional cleaning requirements and agree additional hours to allow for this.

Conclusion

There is an ever-growing number of guides advising education settings on how to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis and, as can be seen above, there are numerous issues and problems which need to be considered.

There is little value in over-summarising as the details are usually where the real dilemmas tend to lie. However, certain principles can be identified as recurring through all the official guidance and these points are worth re-emphasising.

  • Stay two metres apart wherever possible.

  • Regularly wash and dry hands thoroughly.

  • Try to keep children and young people in the same small groups at all times, preferably with the same teacher.

  • Regularly clean surfaces that children and young people are touching.

  • Ensure proper ventilation.

  • Use outside space as much as possible.

  • Use halls, dining areas and internal and external sports facilities for lunch and exercise at half capacity.