Coronavirus: How do teachers and education experts see schools reopening safely?

Credit: PA

As the coronavirus crisis rolls on, how do education experts - those who know their pupils and school buildings better than anyone in Westminster - see schools opening safely?

Coronavirus testing for pupils and teachers under surveillance plan

It follows a U-turn from the government on plans for all primary schoolchildren to return for at least a month before the summer break in England.

Plans were abandoned after minister's approach to reopening schools to more pupils from June 1 were heavily criticised by parents, teachers and unions, with many arguing schools had been left to muddle through with no concrete plan from Westminster.

Many schools will struggle to accommodate more pupils if the two metre rule stays. Credit: PA

There have been widespread calls for a national plan, drawn up by teaching professionals and the government. A ‘Nightingale’ style operation to reopen schools in September in England had been muted, but this has largely been dismissed as unworkable.

Government insiders say they are instead working on "sensible solutions," with further details of England's back-to-school plans expected on 2 July.

ITV News spoke to some leading education professionals to ask them what "sensible solutions" they would like to see put in place.

Allow schools to set their own guidelines

Many believe that the wider reopening of schools in England should not be a one size fits all issue - quite literally in some cases.

The capacity and needs of a village primary school, for example, will be vastly different from those of a 2,000-pupil inner city comprehensive.

And this is not just about physical space. Schools in more deprived areas are likely to have to manage more disadvantaged children who do not have access to computers or the internet, and may not have been as well supported in their school work as their peers during the lockdown.

How will teachers manage bringing these pupils up to speed in order to bridge the learning gap and help prevent what has been described as an “epidemic of educational poverty”.

Should headteachers be able to adapt guidelines to their own situation?

A teacher from Northamptonshire who asked not to be named told ITV News she agrees schools should have autonomy over how they adapt the situation to its own needs.

She says schools should be able to modify broad government guidelines to their own requirements, with the Department of Education (DoE) signing off each individual education setting’s model.

“Each school’s leadership team will come up with a plan, and then that plan will be presented to the DoE . If it’s approved it will continue, if not a school will need to continue tweaking to fit with the government guidelines,” she suggests.

Hamish Patel, a Key Stage Leader in Mathematics from the West Midlands, also says considerations need to be made for different schools and the communities they serve.

"Not one plan could fit all schools but there would need to be non-negotiables such as the social distancing of two metres.

"I think guidance from local authorities will help headteachers undertake these key decisions, however more timelines are needed from central government so these guidelines can be sustained for prolonged periods or for temporary measures."

Parents are being told to wait at the gates - at a social distance from other guardians or parents. Credit: PA

Meanwhile, in Northamptonshire, the teacher says her school has worked hard to ensure pupil premium (PP) and vulnerable children are given the tools they need.

The headteacher made the decision to invest in more laptops so every child had access to one, it was her decision to spend funds allotted to the school this way.

Although this does not solve the issue of those students who do not have WiFi at home, a problem out of a school's area of responsibility.

Mr Patel adds: "There is a wider problem that needs to be addressed for pupils that do not have access to the internet. Funding for schools and for pupils hasn’t been enough in order to deal with a situation like this."

Official figures predict that there may be around 900,000 extra pupils in England's schools over the next decade. Credit: PA

Reducing class sizes is not enough

Keeping children, especially those in early learning settings, two metres apart is acknowledged as a challenge for many reasons, not least because many schools simply do not have the space to keep staff and pupils at the required distance.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says that while they want to get all children back in the classrooms “as soon as possible” it was simply impractical while implementing social distancing safely.

Limiting class sizes to 15 as the government proposes, would Mr Barton says, require “twice as many classrooms and twice as many teachers”.

Using outdoor spaces, and community facilities, like village and church halls was one option, he said, but would need wider cooperation on a national as well as local level.

“This isn’t all in the power of school leaders… it has to be a coordinated effort between national government, schools, and local authorities,” he said.

There will be much smaller classes and students will still be told to socially distance from other pupils. Credit: PA Images

The Northamptonshire teacher argues that it is not as straightforward as simply moving lessons into a different setting - and this is only a short term fix to what looks like being a long term issue.

"As a teacher you need the devices that allow you to teach in a correct need a whiteboard, you need a classroom setting.

"If they’re outside, and you’re trying to teach, it’s quite difficult because it’s hard to keep their attention on what they should be doing because they’re not in an academic setting," she told ITV News.

Mr Patel agrees: "My subject is mathematics and there is a great deal of topics that can be covered using an outdoor setting. However, with the amount of content that is needed to be covered, it is not necessarily feasible to continually use outdoor spaces."

Work on a rota system

Some teachers have recommended a half day rota system, with the changeover between groups at lunchtime allowing time to clean.

But the teacher from Northamptonshire doesn’t believe this is a workable solution.

“I think a good way of doing it would be, a class of 15 stays together for the day and the teachers rotate around for a secondary school basis because then it’s the teacher who’s cleaning down the whiteboard, cleaning down the computer, the mouse, and they’re the only one changing and the rest of the bubble stays the same,” she suggests.

Mr Barton also advocates a rota system, although his idea would see groups of pupils rotating “between learning at home and learning in school” - what is known as the ‘blended model.’

Most schools have adopted the 'bubble' system, so students are assigned to a group of 15 that stay exactly as they are, with no one allowed to join from outside it.

As well as timed lunch breaks, schools have introduced staggered drop offs and end times with each bubble given their own start time.

Classrooms are being adapted to accommodate social distancing. Credit: PA

Prioritising mental wellbeing over the curriculum

While the practical side of getting schools ready for more pupils is the focus for many, getting kids mentally through the door could be one of the toughest asks of teachers at this current time.

There appears to be broad agreement with teachers that the curriculum will have to be side-stepped in the short-term as teachers concentrate on the three Rs and their pupils' mental wellbeing.

Child mental health experts and teachers warn that children will be suffering from loneliness and isolation after being required to stay at home for such a long period.

Conrad North, Headteacher of Upton Heath Primary School in Chester told ITV News: "Our focus in September will be to identify the gaps in learning and then adapt our curriculum to focus on getting the children to where they need to be academically, but also being mindful of their emotional wellbeing.”

Hygiene will be a priority across all education settings. Credit: PA

Dan Morrow, CEO of Woodland Academy Trust in Erith, Kent, says, “every child who walks back into school will be carrying a backpack of invisible lockdown experiences” that will need to be addressed.

He says: “For some that may be a small amount of work when we understand the general impact of the lockdown experience and the trauma of the way the news has gone and the absence from school.

“But for a number of children in our communities and for a number of our families that trauma will run deeper.”

Former deputy headteacher turned education author and coach Ruth Kudzi says schools should prioritise play and socialising with friends over formal lessons and tests, an idea backed up by other children’s mental health experts.

Many also want schools to be given the necessary resources and guidance on how to support children’s emotional wellbeing.

Helen Dodd, professor of child psychology at the University of Reading, says she would like to see "children play with their peers, without social distancing, as soon as possible”.

“This may mean that close play is only permitted in pairs or small groups or within social bubbles that allow repeated mixing with a small number of contacts,” she said.

Playtimes and breaks will be staggered. Credit: PA

Continue to adapt virtual learning

The teacher from Northamptonshire says her school has worked hard to get the best out of virtual learning and they continue to develop ways of using it to enhance the children’s learning.

“We use Microsoft Teams, and this allows us to post assignments, it allows us to communicate with students, it allows us to do virtual lessons.

"We now do lessons on a weekly basis with years 10 and 11 so they don’t just have work to complete, they also have one-to-one, face-to-face time with their teachers.”

Greater communication

Dan Morrow sees the pandemic as an opportunity to promote real change in the education sector, to capitalise on the feeling of community that has been one of the few positive outcomes of this crisis.

Along with the practical elements of opening the school gates to all pupils, Mr Morrow believes communication on a local level is key, and that schools themselves are best placed to deliver advice and reassurance to parents and guardians rather than messages being delivered from Westminster.

“There needs to be very clear communication with the public to make it safe. For me, it’s about managing expectations and managing what people’s perceptions are in order to allow us, in our communities, to be the ones to then speak to them first and have the conversation rather than having to pick up on announcements and guidelines that potentially aren't then able to be fulfilled in the way that the government may have intended.”