The government has published its safety plans for England’s return to school in September – built on the principle of keeping classes or whole year groups apart in separate “bubbles”.
But it means if there are two confirmed coronavirus cases in 14 days, all the pupils in that group, or even the whole school, may have to be sent home.
Schools will have testing kits to give to parents if children show symptoms.
Mobile testing units will be sent to schools which have an outbreak.
The safety plans issued by the Department for Education say that “given the improved position, the balance of risk is now overwhelmingly in favour of children returning to school”.
The guidance sets out how schools will operate with all pupils back full time. This will be with an expansion of the “protective bubble” system already used in schools and minimal contact between groups.
It will based on separating groups and minimising contacts, rather than social distancing, with the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson saying earlier this week: “It’s not about one metre, it’s not about two metres.”
The new rules for autumn will mean:
- grouping children together in groups or “bubbles”
- in primary this will be a class, in secondary a year group
- avoiding contact between these groups during the school day
- separate starting, finishing, lunch and break times
- attendance compulsory with the threat of penalty fines
- test and trace in place for schools
- regular cleaning of hands
- those with symptoms told to stay out of school
- no big group events like school assemblies
- arranging classrooms with forward facing desks
- separate groups on school buses
- discouraging the use of public transport
- masks not expected for pupils or staff.
All schools will have to draw up plans for the possibility of local lockdowns.
And parents in England who do not send their children back to school in September will face fines “unless there’s a good reason for absence”.
Announcing the plans, Mr Williamson told the House of Commons every child in the country had experienced an unprecedented disruption to their learning as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Education recovery was critical to this generation of children – and parents and teachers could return with confidence because testing was being made readily available, he told MPs.
“Everybody wants children to be safe and thankfully as we have learned more about Covid-19, the evidence has shown that the risk of severe disease in children is low,” said Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jenny Harries.
But Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said the government had been “asleep at the wheel” on the return to school and called for a “cross-party taskforce” to take over.
What happens if there is an infection or pupils with symptoms?
If a child in school has Covid symptoms they will have to be taken home straight away, and staff waiting with them will have to wear protective equipment.
All schools are being promised testing kits to give to parents – and if there are two confirmed cases within 14 days, or a rise in absences because of Covid-like symptoms, this could be counted as an outbreak.
This could mean other pupils in the class or the year group being sent home. It could escalate to the whole school site being shut down – but the guidance says such whole-school closures “will not generally be necessary”.
A mobile testing unit could be sent to a school with an outbreak, which could carry out tests to see whether an infection had spread, which could check a class, a year group or the whole school.
In the event of a local outbreak, health protection teams or local authorities may advise schools to close.
Schools say the complications are ‘mind-boggling’
“The logistics of keeping apart many different “bubbles” of children in a full school is mind-boggling,” said Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union.
“There just needs to be a sense of reality about what is possible,” he said – and called on the government to have a “Plan B” if the return proved unworkable.
Head teachers have also voiced concerns about penalty fines being issued to parents if they do not send their children back to school.
Michael Ferry from St Wilfrid’s Secondary School in Crawley, West Sussex, called the threat of fines “ludicrous” and said that he will not issue them “in any shape or form”.
“A significant amount of our community has been affected by the closure of Gatwick airport and if I fine parents £120, I’m effectively saying I’m taking away eight school meals vouchers – because that’s what it amounts to,” he told BBC Breakfast.
He also warned that the school “cannot be full” on any given day, if pupils and teachers face any level of social distancing.
However, Ashley Harrold, head of secondary school Blatchington Mill School in Brighton, said schools could “overcome” challenges around capacity – although there were still “legitimate questions around safety”.
His school had drafted four plans designed to bring all pupils back without shrinking the curriculum.
How have parents reacted?
“Because of a compromised immune system I’ve been shielding through the pandemic – will my children be expected to return to school in September?” responded Julie to the safety plans.
“Doesn’t that expose me to an unacceptable level of risk if the children pick up the virus and bring it into our home?”
“As a parent of teenagers I am hugely keen to have all of my children back in a full learning environment,” said Jessica.
“Life is a risk and all risk must be balanced but getting children back to normality and school life is vital to us as a family,” she told the BBC.
“I have had to shield throughout the pandemic, if my children go back to school then bring Covid home, I am highly likely to die from it. How can it all of a sudden be safe?” asked Elizabeth.
But Kirsty said: “Everything has got to start to go back to some sort of normal sooner or later. It’s worrying but I think children need the stability of school and the social aspect of seeing their friends.”
Another shielding parent, Eric in Sussex, said about his son’s school: “With 60 kids in his year group the concept of any kind of protective “bubble” is a fantasy.”
The issue of transport to school was raised by a number of families – with questions about how that would work with “bubbles”.
“Living in a rural area, my sons get a three-carriage train to school with 70 other boys and girls across all secondary year groups (and Joe Public),” wrote Iain.
“Transport to and from school a real concern too, packed like sardines on school buses,” said Geraldine.
There are also questions about how the bubble system will operate when families might have children in different year groups.
But Ian said: “Just send them back as normal and let them get on with it for goodness sake.”
Sticking with all GCSEs and A-levels
After months out of school there will be “significant gaps in pupils’ knowledge”, say the guidelines.
This means “substantial modifications” to the timetable for the first term, with an emphasis on catching up with the core subjects of maths and English.
A regular curriculum will be in place “no later” than summer term in 2021.
But for pupils taking A-levels and GCSEs, the expectation is that the full range of subjects will continue to be taken – with the expectation that they will start and finish later in the summer than usual.
England’s exams regulator, Ofqual, has drawn up plans which could slim down some of the subjects and reduce teaching time – although heads said this was “little more than tinkering at the edges” despite the scale of disruption.
There will be no reduction in the content of exams, or the number or length of exams – but there will be a reduction in practical parts of some subjects – such as geography fieldwork, science practicals or the spoken language assessment in English.
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