Teaching unions condemn last minute schools guidance

Principal Cara Ackroyd cleans a classroom desk at Outwood Academy Shafton in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, as preparations are made before the start of the new term - Danny Lawson/ PA
Principal Cara Ackroyd cleans a classroom desk at Outwood Academy Shafton in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, as preparations are made before the start of the new term – Danny Lawson/ PA

Headteachers and union leaders have criticised last minute sweeping plans to enforce staggered rota systems on schools in lockdown regions just days before millions of pupils return to classes.

The Department for Education (DfE) has published its guidance about how schools in areas with worrying rises in coronavirus cases could send secondary school pupils home for two weeks at a time to study in an attempt to reduce infection rates.

The 25,000 word document was published late on Friday night, giving teachers just days to learn and implement the new measures before Autumn term starts this week.

The wide-ranging guidelines explain how ‘bubbles’ of youngsters studying together will be used to limit contact between pupils. 

Schools in lockdown zones are also required to introduce a “rota system” providing remote online and video lessons for pupils to study at home for two weeks, before returning to classes for two more weeks if they are symptom free.

The publication comes as Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, called for the same concerted national effort which created the Nightingale field hospitals to be directed towards getting children back to school to prevent “losing a generation for good”.

Meanwhile, Matt Hancock yesterday warned how ministers have not ruled out the possibility of a nationwide lockdown if the country sees an increase in cases this winter, adding how a second wave was a “very serious threat”.

Union bosses expressed their dismay about how the new DfE guidelines for schools were announced at the “last minute”, adding that many head teachers would struggle to implement them at such short notice.

Explaining how dedicated teachers will feel “compelled to act immediately, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It was obvious weeks ago that lockdown advice was necessary.

“The Government’s decision to publish this at 9pm on the Friday of the Bank Holiday weekend before most schools are due to return is nothing short of reprehensible and demonstrates a complete lack of regard for the wellbeing of school leaders and their teams.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he felt a “weary, resigned sense of inevitability” at the timing of the announcement. 

Asked how teachers would feel, he told BBC’s Today programme: “I think, probably, the most polite response… is a weary, resigned sense of inevitability that here we are again, right at the last minute with something that we have been accused of expressing treachery in asking for – where’s the plan B in case of local lockdown – at last it has arrived.”

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the advice should have been available “months ago”, adding schools had been left to “go it alone” if they needed to organise remote learning.

Gavin Williamson has been criticised for publishsing his last minute guidelines to schools - Jamie Lorriman
Gavin Williamson has been criticised for publishsing his last minute guidelines to schools – Jamie Lorriman

Referring to how a paragraph saying how an entire year ‘bubble’ could be sent home was removed shortly after publications, she said: “It is simply unacceptable that this guidance was altered immediately on what is a key issue for schools – what to do when pupils are found to have coronavirus.

“As it stands currently there is still no clarity on what should happen in a school where there is an outbreak.

“This does not build confidence in the Government’s competence to keep schools safe when it scores such an own goal.”

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the teachers’ union NASUWT, called for more funding to be provided so extra staff can be recruited if schools are affected by local lockdown measures.

He said: “The Government now needs to confirm that schools will have the additional resources they need to deliver an effective remote learning offer to all pupils as well as funding for additional staff that will be necessary to maintain continuity of provision in the event of local disruption.”

Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the timing of the guidance “beggars belief” and accused the Government of incompetence and insulting teachers.

Making the announcement, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said any changes to school attendance “will only ever be an absolute last resort”.

He added: “However, it is important that both Government and schools prepare for a worst case scenario, so this framework represents the sensible contingency planning any responsible government would put in place.”

The Government’s new guidelines – what parents need to know

Late on Friday night, a civil servant in the Department for Education pushed a single button on a computer to publish guidance on the reopening of schools in a post-lockdown Britain still reeling from the coronavirus.

Within a matter of seconds, more than 25,000 words went live on the website explaining just how school life was about to change for months if not years.

Below are some of the key points enshrined in that lengthy document that every pupil, teachers and parent will need to know before the school gates open this week.

Face coverings

Although guidelines do not recommend the universal use of face coverings, each school can  decide whether pupils above Year 7, teachers and visitors should wear them when in corridors and communal areas, where passing briefly is deemed a “low risk”. They will not be worn in class. 

A school supply of masks is also recommended for youngsters spotted wearing old or damp ones. Primary school children are not required to wear them.

Hygiene and cleaning

The guidance insists a “robust hand and respiratory hygiene” regime is in place, with children encouraged to clean their hands when they arrive at school, return from breaks, use bathrooms, change classrooms and before eating. Hand sanitiser ‘stations’ should be commonplace, with possible supervision “given risks around ingestion”.

Staff will also supply and promote the use of tissues as part of the “catch it, bin it, kill it’ technique to control germs.

“Enhanced cleaning” regimes will be introduced in which surfaces students touch regularly, such as desks, door handles, books and playground apparatus are cleaned with bleach and detergents. Toilets should also be cleaned very regularly. Pupils must limit equipment they bring to school, carrying in bags just essentials “such as lunch boxes, hats, coats, books, stationery and mobile phones.”

Social distancing and ‘bubbles’

So-called ‘bubbles’ will be created so youngsters learn and mix with fellower pupils. Large assemblies or collective worship should not include more than one group. Break and lunch times can be staggered to keep bubbles apart. 

Ensuring these “distinct groups do not mix” makes it quicker and easier to identify contacts if a positive coronavirus case emerges or someone has symptoms. The bubbles can be larger, increasing to whole “year bubbles”, if teaching demands require it. Books, games and shared equipment can be used within that group, but must be cleaned if then used by another bubble.

Older children will be encouraged to avoid close contact with one another, in part because risks increase with age. Teachers are not restricted to a single ‘bubble’, but are urged to stay at the front of any classroom to reduce contact. In class, pupils must sit spaced out side by side and facing forward.

The use of the staff room by teachers is also meant to be “minimised”. 

Routine testing of children’s temperatures is not encouraged after Public Health England found the process an unreliable way to test for the disease.

If a pupil or teacher has symptoms or a positive diagnosis

Schools must contact local health protection teams immediately so those in close contact with the child can be traced.  The NHS Test and Trace would be informed so family and friends can be contacted and possibly isolated.

The pupil or teacher would be quarantined for 14 days and tested. If a child with symptoms is waiting to be collected by a parent he or she should be moved to a room to be isolated, with adult supervision if required.

Teachers who help a child with symptoms do not have to self-isolate unless they develop symptoms themselves. However, they should thoroughly wash their hands and wear PPE while with the child. The area where someone suspected of having coronavirus has been must then be intensively cleaned.

If a parent insists a child with symptoms should attend school, the headteacher can refuse to take the pupil if they believe there is a threat to others.

‘Remote education’ for local lockdowns

Every school has to draw up plans to ensure children continue to receive an education even if they have to stay home if a local lockdown has been imposed after a spike in coronavirus cases.

In what has been described as an “absolute last resort”, the guidance sets out four tiers of restrictions. In the first tier, schools remain open with everyone wearing face coverings in communal areas. In the next tier just for secondary schools, a “rota system” is introduced where children are given two weeks at home to see whether symptoms emerge, then two week at school if given the all clear. A one week rota – five days in class, nine days at home – is another possible option. 

Tiers three and four offer studying at home, with only the most vulnerable children, or those of key workers allowed to attend classes.

Pupils would be given access to online and offline material and teaching videos linked to the curriculum. 

The announcement was amended shortly after it was published to remove any suggestion an entire bubble, which could include a year, could be asked to self-isolate.

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