Headteachers raise concerns over reopening of English primaries
Primary school headteachers in England have expressed concern at the government’s announcement on schools reopening next month, warning that it is too soon, it covers the wrong year groups and that many parents will elect to keep their children at home.
Boris Johnson announced on Sunday that pupils in reception, year one and year six would begin a phased return to primary schools from 1 June, to be followed soon after by the rest of primary years. The government hopes secondary and sixth-form pupils taking GCSEs and A-levels next year will get at least some time with teachers before the holidays.
Headteachers interviewed by the Guardian expressed scepticism, warning that it would be “near impossible” to ensure four- and five year-olds keep at a safe distance from each other, and suggesting it would be more realistic among children aged seven and older.
Many were holding emergency staff meetings on Monday to discuss the implications of the government’s plans and how they might be carried out safely in cramped school buildings with narrow corridors and a workforce depleted by the effects of the virus. Others were waiting for further details to emerge later on Monday.
Sue Vermes, the head of Rose Hill primary school on the outskirts of Oxford, said her school had remained open during lockdown, catering for about 60 vulnerable children coming in on different days, and had developed systems to ensure the best possible safety for pupils and staff in school. She said it would be “challenging” to replicate that with greater numbers.
Currently the children queue to get into school, and their temperatures are taken as they enter. The space outside is marked with tape to help children keep two metres apart. Once inside there is a rigorous handwashing routine, with hand sanitiser in the foyer and every classroom.
Pupils are taught in small groups by the same member of staff in order to limit contacts. While it has worked with small numbers spread throughout the school building, Vermes said: “I can’t envisage having a whole reception class or year six at one time.”
Staffing is also a concern. Vermes said only 60% of her team were available to come into school, with the rest either at high risk or shielding. Others have come in despite their fears, having seen people they know die from the virus.
“Lots of people are very anxious. It does not feel like the evidence is there to reduce our anxiety yet,” Vermes said. “Parents who are anxious about sending their children in should not be under pressure to do so. I don’t want to put anyone at risk. I don’t want that on my conscience.”
Amanda Thornton-Jones, the head of primary education at Red Kite Learning Trust, a chain of 13 schools in North and West Yorkshire, said she was worried that the return to school was perhaps too soon and she was surprised by the year groups chosen to return first.
“The idea of a phased return is a sound idea. We all want the children back in school. We know they’re missing their learning,” she said. “I think it’s the decisions that have been made around particular year groups which don’t make sense. Reception and year one are quite complex year groups in terms of social distancing. It’s near impossible, just by the very nature of the age group.”
Red Kite has been running hub schools for children of key workers and vulnerable pupils, catering for children as young as two. The systems now in place will be rolled out further when more children return, with regular handwashing, equipment and tables regularly wiped down, and regular cleaning of the building. “It has worked in the hubs. They do understand. Children are quick to learn,” she said.
Last Thursday Wales announced it would not be reopening schools on 1 June. The education minister, Kirsty Williams, said the Welsh government “will only look to have more pupils and staff in schools when it is safe to do so”.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has also highlighted safety concerns as a main reason for schools not to reopen before August, and Peter Weir, Northern Ireland’s education minister, said last week that any reopening would be “guided by science and health, and will not be date-driven”.
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