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Monday, 01 June 2020 18:48

Coronavirus: Kent and Medway Primary Schools Partial Re-Opening

Regular updates in progress. Most recent 8 p.m. 5th June. 

The government encouraged all primary schools to re-open on 1st June for Nursery, Reception, Year One and Year Six pupils. I sent a survey to Kent and Medway primary schools on Sunday asking their plans and have now (Tuesday 2nd) had responses from more than 15% of  schools surveyed, as set out in the table below

This has now been partially overtaken by data from the 360 primary schools that have responded to KCC's own enquiry. This reports 118 primaries opening to all three school years on Monday 1st June, and 58 more opening to one or two of the year groups. Another 78 are opening Tuesday or Wednesday, the delay being due to an Inset Day, Deep Cleaning or other reason. Eight are on a second week of half term, leaving 98 who are not open (possibly doing so later on, some next week, or else unable to, or unwilling). That is a figure much larger than I was expecting. Of the 95 schools that have chosen not to reply, some may be from large uncooperative Academy Trusts. This is not incompatible with my own findings, although these expand the information, and it would be good to receive further results directly. KCC has now issued a general statement about re-opening. 

The only quotes I have seen from Medway Council (via KentOnline) are: 'Some schools across Medway are welcoming pupils back to school from 1 June.'  and 'We anticipate more primary schools will be able to reopen over the coming week, with 94% of Medway primary schools potentially able to reopen by mid-June'. The second of these is meaningless, as 'potentially able' is very different from 'will'.  

I look below at some of the key elements that have emerged, although it is important to recognise that the schools which have replied are self-selecting and so may not be typical.

The key government document, updated on 1st June, offers a template for opening schools although Kent and Medway have adopted a whole kaleidoscope of ways to address their individual circumstances and challenges. You may have seen a number of television examples illustrating some of the possible steps being taken to achieve these, including devices to ensure social distancing and deep cleaning.  

I have no quarrel with The Times main headline Tuesday. Coronavirus: Safe Return of all Primary School Pupils 'will be impossible'. Schools too small for every year group to go back before summer, PM warned, as explained below. It is no exaggeration to write that Kent schools are facing a challenge unprecedented in English educational history, where the cost of getting it wrong will affect and could cost the lives of members of school families.  

This means that the approach of each school is experimental as they try out what they think will work for them. Don't therefore be surprised if some changes are quickly made as schools learn from their own experience and that of others. Most schools surveyed parents in advance to determine initial numbers take up. However, many families are understandably wary and numbers are expected to change, perhaps considerably and either way, as time goes on and parents see how it is working out. This presents yet another challenge as the social distancing requirement means some schools are already operating at capacity and will find it impossible to manage increased numbers! Most schools (the others have shared out the load between them) have also continued to support vulnerable children and those with key worker parents throughout the crisis and will continue to do so. They will also provide a remote education for those year groups not generally in school. Other children remaining at home for the present will continue to have work set for them by teachers, although I suspect that a few schools will give it a lower priority. 
 
Another variable factor is that of teacher and support staff availability, with multiple reasons why this may not be to full capacity, or else suddenly change, outside the control of the school. With pupils being taught in small groups or bubbles it will require a full staff to cover the needs of three classes. I am already hearing of unqualified staff being pressed into duty in some of the more aggressive Academy Trusts.   These include situations where teachers are themselves or family who are vulnerable. At any stage, teachers can be required to isolate following contact tracing, and so classes may have to be cancelled at short notice. 
 
Some of the replies to my survey stuck to the single sentence I suggested as a response so as not to burden them, but others have gone into considerable detail as indicated below. Thanks to every one of them for sparing valuable time, and can I encourage others to follow. I agreed not to identify individual schools in those responses to encourage responses.  
I have not yet heard of any Kent school that is remaining closed, although the KCC results above suggest there could be as many as 25% of the total. Certainly several in the media initially implied they were not opening, such as St George’s CofE, Sheerness as described in KentLive. The school has now come  up with to the following pattern, but is hardly pressing pupils to return, although it is one of the few schools to move outside the government template and welcome back Year Five pupils. 
Week 2 (June 8th): we will welcome back any year 6 pupils that wish to return in bubbles of 8, Week 3: in addition to year 6, we will welcome back any year one and reception pupils that wish to return in bubbles of 8, Week 4: in addition to year R,1 & 6, we will welcome back any year 5 pupils that wish to return in bubbles of 8. Key worker children will be welcome as usual and home learning will carry on. In all cases the staff will be wearing PPE- a face covering, an apron and gloves, the government does not believe this is required, however I feel we need to protect each other just as we protected our nurses. It is also common practice in Europe’.
 
 
It is clear that responsibility for getting it right, whatever the challenges, lies with headteachers. Every one of those with whom I have been in contact is driven to offer the very best they can for their children, whilst keeping them as safe as possible. Many tell me they have been working a seven day week for some time to bring the new arrangement about, along with the other demands of the pandemic. The immense stress under which headteachers are operating, balancing safety with educational opportunity is evident, with a heavy price to pay if they get it wrong. None of this takes away from the heavy demands of so many teachers and support staff who have to plan and manage the situation for classes as well as those still at home. 

Government has made clear there is no penalty for parents who wish to keep their children at home, and schools have the additional responsibility of providing these with some form of education. Some staff are not able to return at present because of their personal situations. It is not clear what the situation is for others who simply feel unable to return at present because of the inherent risks. I can see some schools being unsympathetic and taking action against them. There are schools in great difficulty because of a shortage of staff, for these and other reasons.

One key factor is  places which can vary strongly with social background of families, many schools in disadvantaged areas expecting fewer than half their school roll to arrive in week one. This creates a further uncertainty with an expectation by some that more children will return the following week – but only if week one works well – although some school plans cannot cope with such an increase because of limited space?

Some schools are following the government template in full but are under no obligation to do so. Others are admitting just one or two of the recommended school intake year groups, such as Hampton School with its detailed letter of the rationale behind their decisions.  There are schools that are admitting no one this week, but staggering admissions over the next few weeks.
 
Kent & Medway Primary Schools
Reopening June 2020
(My Sample to 4th June)
Kent
Medway
Opening 1/2nd Jun R,1,6
25
5
Opening 1/2nd Jun, two Yr Groups
8
1
Opening 1/2nd Jun one Yr Group
5
1
Staggered Opening from 1/2nd Jun 8 4
Opening Some or all 8th June 12 0
Later 
5 4
Not opening
0
0
TOTAL
63 15
TOTAL KENT SCHOOLS
456
79
Notes: (1)See comment by Trust School headteacher below about being forbidden to respond. How sad.
 (2) Because I was using a three year old data base, 107 schools did not receive the enquiry, including a high proportion of academies.  As a result, I had a return of over 15% of all schools that received the enquiry. 
This is not incompatible with data supplied by KCC below, as I assume that schools which have not opened are unlikely to contact me. Some decisions are still being worked through as the issues including staff availability clarify 
 
Kent & Medway Primary Schools
Reopening June 2020
(KCC Sample 2nd June)
 
Kent
Opening 1st Jun R,1,6
118
Opening 1st Jun, one or two Yr Groups
58
Opening 2/3rd Jun 
78
Two week half term 8
Not Open* 98
TOTAL
360
TOTAL KENT SCHOOLS
456

* possibly doing so later on, some next week, or else unable to, or unwilling

Medway Council quote: 'Some schools across Medway are welcoming pupils back to school from 1 June.'  and 'We anticipate more primary schools will be able to reopen over the coming week, with 94% of Medway primary schools potentially able to reopen by mid-June'.  For example, the Academy of Woodlands is opening on 15th June. Actually this statement about the 94% is meaningless. Surely ALL schools should be 'potentially able' to open, although none could choose to do so!  

 

I have today decided to postpone a phased return until 15th June. At that point Yr R,1 and 6 will be in school with the key worker children.

 
Bubbles, Staggered Starts, Rotas, Temperatures, Deep Cleans  and other matters.
The new concept of ‘bubble’ is taking a strong grip on our schools, with small groups of children spending the day and week together with one or more members of staff.The size of the bubble is mainly defined by staff numbers and space available and is designed to ensure no risk of infection by the wider community. Then: there are staggered timing of starts and endings to the school day; pupils allowed in school on a rota basis, either with children attending mornings and afternoons alternately or else a week or a fortnight at a time; children’s temperatures taken when they are dropped off at school in the morning; naturally very frequent handwashing for all; and regular breaks for deep cleaning of the school, its classrooms and other facilities.
It is very unlikely that we will be accepting children beyond Keyworkers, vulnerable pupils, Year R and Year 6 (split into 2 groups and in school on alternate weeks) before the end of the summer term.
 
The staggered start:
Year R drop off at 10:00 am and collect at 2:45pm
Year 1 drop off at  9:30 am and collect at 3:00pm
Year 6 drop off at  9:00 am and collect at 3:15pm
All children need to be dropped off and collected by an adult.
I was talking with a parent only today, who needs to go to work for nine a.m. and so the staggered start quite simply does not work. Either school or work will have to go! How many times will this be repeated? 
 
Then there is safety: the following does not appear to be unusual, just ahead of the latest government initiative:
I understand that there have been some mixed reactions to our suggestion of wearing face masks. To reassure parents, the Trust stance is: it has been clearly demonstrated in countries such as South Korea, Japan and nearer to home in France that masks will significantly ease the spread of corona virus. The Trust therefore feels strongly that masks should be available to all of our personnel. Parents are advised to supply a mask for their children although this is not obligatory. Parents who are unable to supply one but would like their child to wear one, please ask. Members of staff are able to wear a mask in school, should they wish.
 
Through all this a programme of home learning needs to be maintained for those unable or whose parents are unwilling for them to attend: 
We will continue to supply home-learning packs for families at home too. We have left these very much to the parents' discretion as we are conscious that trying to teach primary aged children while working from home can be really difficult. The packs include 5 days worth of English and Maths and then a range of activities from the foundation subject curriculum. We have used a range of resources and we always have printed copies available for parents who cannot print at home. Our teachers are not delivering live lessons.
 
Naturally great care needs to be taken at every step, not only to minimise the risk of coronavirus but to protect the school from legal action in case it goes wrong. This requires intense and accurate planning:

‘It does have to be right, We have a 10 page risk assessment. Version 12 of staff communications to ensure every ones safety and of course amendments to almost every policy’.

 
Two typical schools:
We have had to split our 60 year 6 children into groups of 12 as we couldn’t fit in 15, even after moving all of the other furniture out. Our Nursery children are split into two bubbles as are Reception and Year 1. Therefore we are using all classrooms plus the library, wrap around care kitchenette and a therapy room to teach in. The school hall is full of furniture from the classrooms. Every teacher and TA that  are able to work are in. We are at full stretch and cannot take more children under the current social distancing guidance. We have used staggered starts and end times which are working well and we are running a half day on Wednesday for additional cleaning and for teachers to have PPA time. Some teachers are still having to plan for their own year group (who are not in school) and are teaching a different year group bubbles.
These arrangements of course are for just part of the school, leaving no capacity to expand for Years 2,3,4 and 5 if the pandemic continues to run. 

We have surveyed parents and of the eligible pupils in year R, Year 1 and Year 6 fewer than half of the parents have opted to send their children back. We are having a training day for staff tomorrow and then on consecutive days we will introduce the groups of children into school and into their hubs. Staff are assigned to hubs, some teaching, some preparing resources and some preparing the home learning for all those not attending. Key worker and vulnerable children remain in their hub. Food hampers will also continue for those children not choosing to be back. Strict social distancing and hand washing in place. Only one entrance and parents not on site. Temperature taken on drop off. One way system around school. Staggered start and finish times in place. Meals in hubs and children only use their hubs outside space. One child per desk, tray per child for their resources.

 
But the key uncertainties remain:

Our aim in sharing this proposed timeline is to give our families as much notice as possible so that they can plan for their own circumstances. Whilst each school will endeavour to stick to the published timeline, dates are subject to change (either earlier or later) dependent on the following factors:

  • updates to government advice to schools.
  • updates to school risk assessments and procedures in response to welcoming back more pupils.
  • availability of staff to supervise a greater number of pupils smaller groups (for example due to shielding or self-isolating).
 
 
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My sincere best wishes to every headteacher, staff and governing body in Kent and Medway as they face up to these unprecedented challenges. Keep safe!

  

Last modified on Saturday, 06 June 2020 19:30

1 comment

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 02 June 2020 12:11 posted by Trust school Headteacher

    I would wish to contribute to this article, but as headteacher of a robust and large Trust I have been forbidden to do so. As a result of the Trust ban your results will be skewed. PETER: How sad. It says much for the power of Trusts who can ride roughshod over anything that doesn't fit their model.

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