Reopening schools: ‘Nobody can expect younger children to socially distance’

Independent schools have responded positively to children returning, but know the challenges this will present

After UK schools have been closed since 20 March to slow the spread of coronavirus, the prime minister has said a phased return to schools in England could start from 1 June, beginning with pupils in reception, year one and year six.

Boris Johnson said they hoped pupils facing exams next year, such as year 10 and 12, would get some time in school before the summer holidays. However, these plans will be delayed if the new Covid alert level won’t allow it.

Ben Evans, headmaster at Edge Grove School, said there is “no substitution for actually being at school” but is wary of asking children to carry out social distancing.

“Nobody can expect younger children to socially distance – their default position is to be among each other, playing and enjoying the company of their peers,” he said, adding: “This is what makes schools such amazing places and also one the most important reasons for a phased and well thought through reopening.”

He said upon reopening, classes will be limited to 15 pupils or less, pupils will be unable to mix in class or at break, parents won’t be able to enter the building, there will be frequent hand washing, fewer specialist lessons due to staff shortages and limited use of concrete resources.

“They will, however, be able to socialise, see their friends and teachers in person rather than on a screen and regain some semblance of normality – which is so important for children of any age,” said Evans.

Challenges ahead

Sue Hincks, headmistress of Bolton School’s girls’ division, which will reopen in line with the government’s announcement, said: “We understand the government’s desire to reopen schools in order to get the country’s workforce going again.”

However, having had many key workers’ children in throughout lockdown, Hincks is aware of the problems associated with the return of children to schools.

“Social distancing is the main one but there are also challenges in ensuring rigorous cleaning regimes throughout the day,” she said, adding: “Our estates manager is currently looking at installing outside hand washing facilities and he will then ask his team to put out markers to show how far apart children must remain.”

We understand the government’s desire to reopen schools in order to get the country’s workforce going again

Hincks also said it will be more beneficial for the younger children to return than the older ones. She explained: “We think that the reception and year one children would benefit from face-to-face contact with their teachers; at their young age, missing a term’s tuition from teachers who can give you feedback in real time represents a substantial part of their schooling.

“We are less concerned about year six as the remote learning has worked very well for them. Similarly, heads of department have not said that it is imperative that we see years 10 or 12 in school as they have also kept up well with their work.”

In terms of year two pupils, who won’t return in phase one, Hincks said they are looking into giving them iPads, which years three to 13 have had since lockdown.

Logistical puzzle

St Margaret’s School in Bushey will also welcome back the outlined pupil groups from 1 June but “only if everything proceeds as the government hopes it will”, explained head, Lara Péchard.

“We are fortunate at St Margaret’s to have a big site with extensive outdoor grounds and some big classrooms, although reintroducing pupils back into school will take careful planning and consideration,” she said.

“We intend to keep our class sizes very small. We also plan to continue with our remote learning programme at same time for the remainder of our pupils.”

The school is keen to see pupils return to take some of the pressure off parents, and for pastoral benefits and routine. Péchard said: “For some, managing small children at home is very demanding and for others, they won’t be bringing children in this term as they may not feel comfortable doing so.

“Our staff are working extremely hard and we intend to protect our vulnerable staff, pupils and their families as a top priority. Right now for schools, this is a logistical puzzle with lots of human information to factor in.”

Unions with members in education published a joint statement on 13 May, which can be seen on the National Association of Head Teachers’ website, which said: “The government is showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools, and outwards from schools to parents, sibling and relatives, and to the wider community.

“We call on the government to step back from the 1 June and work with us to create the conditions for a safe return to schools based on the principles and tests we have set out.”

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