How will social distancing work as more children go back to school in England?

While many schools have stayed open across the country to teach the children of key workers, as of Monday, kids in nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6, alongside priority groups, are being asked to return to the classroom as part of a wider easing of lockdown measures in England.

The government says the decision to gradually increase the numbers of children and young people attending schools and colleges is based on the latest scientific advice.

But concerns over safety have been raised by parents and teachers who fear social distancing will be difficult to manage in an education setting.

According to a GMB Union poll on Monday, more than 80% of parents did not intend to send their children back to school on 1 June, citing concerns over a lack of PPE and the absence of a comprehensive track and trace scheme.

Schools that have remained open during lockdown are practised in enforcing social distancing measures and arranging classrooms to accommodate the new protocols.

But keeping - or trying to keep - a small group of children two metres apart is one thing, but as class sizes grow, can this be maintained?

As more of the nation’s school children head back, what are the government guidelines concerning social distancing and how will schools manage to enforce these rules with bigger class sizes?

Pupils sit at separate desks at Hiltingbury Infant School in Chandler's Ford, Hampshire. Credit: PA

What will classrooms look like?

Classes sizes will be reduced and children kept in “bubbles” with one member of staff assigned to each group. This means kids will be asked to mix only with their classmates in their bubble.

A maximum of eight per group is the government’s recommendation, although the guidelines allow for pods of up to 15.

Floor markings have been used by many schools to help keep children in different parts of the room, while desks, tables and chairs have been marked off to show children where they can sit.

If room allows, pupils can also be sat at separate desks and when kids sit on the floor for, say story time, stickers on the mat can be used to designated a space to ensure they are safely apart.

  • Pupils return to Haddenham Community Junior School in Aylesbury

How will the groups work?

Children and staff should mix in these small consistent “bubbles” as much as possible and groups should stay away from others.

These bubbles should use the same area of the school or nursery throughout the day as much as possible and avoid sharing resources such as painting materials, books, pens and pencils.

Each designated group will have their breaks together, move around the school together and have lessons as one cohort.

What if space does not allow pupils and staff to remain apart?

Government guidance is very much that - each school will manage social distancing as best it can, depending on space and the individual needs of pupils.

With more children in a confined space, the physical layout of a school may not allow children to stay two metres apart.

In these situations, the guidelines say staff must "exercise judgement in ensuring the highest standards of safety are maintained".

Schools are being asked to use areas not normally used for classrooms, for example school halls or dining areas, while staff are encouraged to use outdoor space as much as possible.

In some cases, if classes sizes are too squeezed, pupils may be asked to attend another nearby school.

  • Laura and Alistair McRonald on why they feel safe sending their daughter Lucinda back to school for her final year at Haddenham Community Junior School

What about early years and nursery? Surely they are too young to understand social distancing?

It is recognised early years pupils and children in nursery cannot be expected to remain two metres apart from each other and staff. In these cases, staff are asked to set out a range of measures to protect children and staff as best they can.

Teachers and nursery staff are being asked to come up with age appropriate and playful ways of helping young children understand the current measures through games, songs and stories.

One headteacher at a Netherlands primary school wore a wide white skirt and a hula hoop and used a long stick with a hand at one end to shake hands with students at a safe distance.

Teachers are encouraged to use outside space as much as possible. Credit: PA

How will kids keep physically distance at break times? And what about toilet breaks?

Schools are encouraged to have staggered breaks and lunch times, while school eating areas should have clear markers to ensure pupils stick in their groups and retain physical distance. If space does not allow for children to sit two metres apart, schools are advised pupils should have their lunch in their classrooms.

Divided playground areas will also help ensure groups stay separate if breaks do overlap as well as keeping kids in each bubble apart from each other as much as possible.

The number of children using the toilets - including to wash their hands - at anyone time should be limited and ideally different “bubbles” should not use the facilities at the same time.

How will drop off and pick ups work?

Drop-offs and pick-ups will also be subject to social distancing rules.

Schools are being asked to limit drop-offs and pick-ups to one parent or carer per family and to introduce staggered timings. Parents or carers should collect at the school door if this is possible rather than coming into the building.

Physical distancing markings at pick-up and drop-off areas may be useful to ensure parents and carers adhere to safety measures - the school gates will look very much like the supermarket-style queues we have come to accept as normal.

Children and parents are encouraged to walk or cycle to their school or nursery, again where possible, and asked to avoid travel on public transport if they can.

Social distance drop offs will be part of the new normal. Credit: PA

How will staff and pupils move around the building safely?

The guidelines say that, while in general groups should be kept apart as much as possible, passing in a corridor or coming into (physically distanced) contact with other groups briefly as students move around the building is considered low risk.

Having said that, it is recommended that, where possible, schools introduce a one-way system to avoid pupils getting too close in the corridors and other communal areas.

And can staff mix with each other?

Teachers and assistants should remain at a safe distance from each other during breaks, including in staff rooms or other areas where staff would usually gather.

Do children and teachers need to wear a face mask?

The government says wearing a face covering or face mask in schools or other education settings "is not recommended" except in some situations indoors where social distancing may be difficult to maintain.

But guidance over face masks is constantly under review so this advice may change in the future.