As expected, the Prime Minister made reference to schools in Sunday’s announcement – generally adding ingredients to a big batch of confusion soup! Yesterday evening Gavin Williamson and DfE finally released their first guidance to give a little more sense of what this might mean in practice.
Gavin Williamson’s announcement was more or less as we had expected – although no-one had predicted correctly exactly which year groups would go back first! You can read his announcement here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/details-on-phased-wider-opening-of-schools-colleges-and-nurseries It talks about primary and secondary, but not special schools. All school returns are currently dependent on there being no spike in infection rates over the next 2 weeks.
This announcement was the trigger for DfE to hastily release guidance. The key document is ‘Actions for education and childcare to prepare …’ available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/actions-for-educational-and-childcare-settings-to-prepare-for-wider-opening-from-1-june-2020/actions-for-education-and-childcare-settings-to-prepare-for-wider-opening-from-1-june-2020 The first message is that all children in vulnerable groups should be encouraged to go back to school. Don’t allow your blood pressure to spike at this – it then talks specifically about special schools, giving the line we anticipated on Thursday about special schools continuing to risk assess which children it is safe to have back. Whilst this continues to give you control over who you take back and when there has been a subtle but important shift in the message from ’staying at home if safe to do so’ to ‘coming to school if it is as safe as staying at home’. This is likely to create the pressure we anticipated on Thursday with schools facing a push from LAs and families to take more children and a pull from their staff and sites to continue to take limited numbers of children. On the plus side, there was no mention of special schools working towards 50% attendance, which removes one potential pressure. Special schools do not have to take back children from specific year groups first but would be free to do this if they have identified specific year groups as having particular vulnerabilities such as imminent transitions out of school.
The contents of this guidance really bring home the fine balancing job that school leaders will have to continue to do – increasing numbers of children attending whilst shielding vulnerable staff, maintaining social distancing as much as possible and ensuring staff wellbeing! As mentioned last week, your risk assessments will continue to be key in informing your practice and defending your decisions. The guidance is weak on transport – more guidance is promised – and unclear about what schools should do to maintain safety if and when their children cannot stay physically distant in school. You might logically think that this a cue for some really good guidance on protective practices in schools! You’d be partially right – there was new guidance released on this last night … but it’s likely to cause as many problems as it solves!
‘COVID-19: implementing protective measures in education and childcare’ is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-implementing-protective-measures-in-education-and-childcare-settings The key thing you will note is that Government is holding the line that PPE is NOT routinely needed in schools. Whilst this might be helpful in allowing schools to open and legitimately expect their staff to practice without it, it is unlikely to address anxieties about specific situations such as children who spit or where restrictive physical interventions may be used. It also means there continues to be a significant gap between practice recommended in school settings and in care settings – where more routine use of PPE IS recommended. This has already been flagged with DfE and it’s very disappointing that it remains unaddressed. The subject of testing has also been fudged – testing is available for symptomatic staff and children but not for those who are asymptomatic but who may have been exposed to the virus. This will continue to be a limiting factor in school capacity to expand provision. My best advice on PPE is for schools not to use it routinely, i.e. with all staff at all times, but to consider specific situations in which it may either reduce direct risks from specific procedures and/or where it enables staff that are anxious but not on the official ‘extremely vulnerable’ group to feel sufficiently confident to return to work. The guidance is more helpful on how schools could manage staff – all actions will already be familiar to schools from things they are trying I am sure. Staff availability will also remain a limiting factor in schools expanding numbers attending.
Finally, there is new guidance for parents and carers about returning to school. There will be no fines if parents continue to keep children at home. The message about children with EHCPs attending school if it is as safe for them as staying at home is reiterated here, so you may find this being quoted at you! You can read the guidance here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/closure-of-educational-settings-information-for-parents-and-carers/reopening-schools-and-other-educational-settings-from-1-june
I am part of a small working group, supporting DfE to think about whether it is desirable for schools to stay open over the summer holidays. We have not met yet but have all communicated messages about the need for school leaders to get a break this summer. If you are strongly against that view, please let me know!
We will update again as more information comes in. Please let us know if you are facing any specific problems as a result of the guidance.
With all good wishes from
Claire, Kate, Karen and Jenny