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Safety and the reopening of schools

The National Education Union (NEU) wants schools to open more widely, but only when it is safe to do so.

Your child’s safety, that of families, our members, and society as a whole, must be the priority. There is no doubt that lockdown has an impact on jobs and the economy, but opening too soon and without a robust safety plan in place could make things worse, not better.

In our National Education Recovery Plan, the NEU has set out our 10 demands on Government to make the return of schools, colleges and nurseries as safe as possible and to avoid them having to close again. The NEU believes parents and carers should be well informed of the risks and should be involved in the discussion about reopening.

Frequently asked questions

What happens if the ‘R’ rate rises in my area: will schools be closed?

At present the Government is monitoring the infection rate locally (known as the ‘R’ rate) but has stopped publishing the number of people tested. A rise in the ‘R’ rate has led to a local lockdown in Leicester and may well do so in other areas with high or rising infection rates. The NEU is very concerned that not enough individuals have been or are being tested and that there is no adequate government ‘track and trace’ programme. We are pressing the Government to take action to ensure pupil, staff and community safety. We also believe the Government should test and monitor the infection rate more accurately and take measures to ensure that schools and colleges are safe. 

My son/daughter uses public transport to and from school/college. What should I do to keep him/her safe?

Children and staff get to school in a variety of ways. It is not always possible for them to walk or cycle to school. Currently the Government is advising us to only make journeys on public transport where necessary and to wear a mask when doing so. The NEU believes transport to school must be an integral part of school risk assessments: we are asking schools and colleges to include transport, pick-up and drop-off as separate risks within the risk assessment, and to review this as the situation changes. You should also find out what your local public transport provider is doing to keep their passengers and staff safe. We are also asking schools and colleges to make their risk assessments available to all.

What is a risk assessment, and should our school share it with us?

A risk assessment is a document that assesses risk in a workplace, building or area. All schools must complete a risk assessment for coronavirus before opening and regularly review and change it when necessary. This will reduce risk to pupils, staff, parents and the local community. These documents should be shared so that the school community knows and understands what measures have been put in place. These documents should be shared with staff and parents through the school website or via email. We advise you to ask to see a copy and to take part in addressing the risks. You can make suggestions and ask for amendments if you believe that it does not take into account, for example, your child’s or family’s underlying health conditions or how your child gets to and from school. For children with an underlying health condition or Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) – or for children from a household where someone else has – schools/colleges need to carry out an individual risk assessment, and you should be involved in this process.     

What happens if I do not agree with the head’s decision to open the whole school?

The Government has said that it intends to open education settings to all pupils in September. Head teachers have been provided with guidance by the Department for Education (DfE) in order to do this. Social distancing in schools is difficult, if not impossible, in most circumstances. The Government has yet to provide the scientific evidence that reopening schools is safe: the NEU is asking for assurances that when the guidelines are implemented by schools in September, transmission networks can be managed and vulnerable staff and pupils kept safe. The NEU believes that schools should only open to all pupils when it is safe to do so, and is calling on Government to have a Plan B in case of rising infection rates.

Blended learning is a combination of classroom and online learning. The NEU believes schools must be supported and resourced by the Government to plan for blended learning in case of a second spike or a rise in the local ‘R’ rate meaning schools have to fully or partially close in the autumn. Keeping a safe distance from each other is essential to reducing the spread of Covid-19.

The NEU is supporting our members to plan for blended learning to keep your children and themselves safe. This means both face to face learning in school when it is safe to do so, and work at home online. This could be on a rota for year groups/classes in smaller bubbles than the Government is currently suggesting. It would also serve as a back-up plan if the Government’s current plans for education fail.

The NEU recognises that not all families have access to computer equipment and/or the internet. We are calling on the Government to uphold the promise to deliver free broadband and to supply pupils with laptops for their schoolwork. We also think the Government must provide schools and colleges with funding for blended learning: this is set out in our National Education Recovery Plan.

Will I face a fine if I decided that it is not safe for my child to go back to school?

The Government has said parents may be fined if they do not send their child back to school unless they have a good reason. We think that, rather than threatening parents with fines, the Government must support head teachers to ensure parents are confident that it is safe for their child to go back to school. The NEU is advising heads to work with parents and carers to ensure information about the wider reopening of schools is clearly conveyed. The union believes working with families in a constructive and supportive way, using scientific information to address concerns, is a far better route than fining parents.

What can my school/college/nursery do to make sure my child is safe?

The measures that are being taken to make pupils safe should be shared with and explained to parent and carers. They should be detailed in the risk assessment. These measures are set by Government and the Department for Education (DfE), the NEU has provided more detailed advice and guidance on how this should be done and what should be covered, including the additional risks to people in vulnerable groups. All parents and carers should be made aware of the assessment and ways that families can keep themselves and each other safe. If you haven’t been informed yet, contact your school to find out.

Is a one metre distance safe?

If the whole school returns at once, there will not be space in most school and college buildings to distance. Where it is not possible, we are asking the Government to make public buildings, such as libraries and sports halls, civic centres, and religious buildings, available to schools so that social distancing can be achieved. If you are worried about what will happen in your child’s school, talk to your head teacher, and discuss the risk assessment they have carried out.

I am a key worker: will the school continue to provide a place for my child if more year groups come back?

Schools should continue to provide a place for the children of key workers, though there will no doubt be some changes to the routine in school if and when other year groups return. You should talk to your school about this provision and find out what plans are in place and how your child fits in to the rota (if there is one). We have given advice to our members about keeping your child safe in groups or ‘bubbles’.

I have two children in the same school, what happens if they are asked to go in at different times?

Parents need to plan around work and childcare if it is available and we are pushing the Government to act quickly on this issue. Having children from the same household in school at the same time reduces the risk. Most schools will have considered this and will be making plans to have sibling ‘bubbles’. If you have not heard from your child’s school, contact them now to discuss this option.

My child’s school has talked about a staggered lunch break so that children can distance. How will lunch time and breaks work?  

Every head teacher has been asked to carry out a risk assessment to make sure the risk of infection is reduced wherever possible. This might mean that there is a longer lunch service in most schools and a change to the time that pupils would normally eat. Some children will have an earlier break and some later. Older children may cope better with this. If your child has a medical condition that means they need to eat at set times, your school should carry out a risk assessment specific to your child.

I am worried about how my child will cope with the changes in school when they go back.

Many children will have found being away from school and friends unsettling and, in some cases traumatic. While most will welcome the chance to get back to a more settled routine, school life will be very different from how it was before, and they may need some help to adjust. Wellbeing and learning go hand in hand and the NEU wants the Government to adopt a ‘recovery curriculum’ in the shorter term, to prevent children and young people losing access to subjects like languages, DT and the arts that engage children in education and  improve life chances. We want the return to school and college to be a positive experience.

The NEU is asking the Government to fully-fund a national plan to adapt education to centre on the wellbeing of children and young people. This is part of a 10-point recovery plan. We are supporting our members to develop a whole-school approach to trauma and plan around the emotional needs of their pupils, called the 5Cs. If you have specific concerns about your child, talk to your school about what support they will need.

What about the £1 billion Covid-19 catch-up plan?

The Government’s promise was for £650 million, split across primary and secondary schools. Headteachers will have discretion to spend it as they need to, but it is designed for small group tuition to help those that have ‘fallen behind’, ‘catch up’. A further £350 million has been promised to pay for private tuition to help the most disadvantaged ‘catch up’. In reality, we calculate that, if split equally between the 8.1 million state school pupils aged under 16, the £1 billion fund works out as £123 per pupil. Even taking into account that not all children will need it, the idea and this small amount of funding will not solve the problem. Schools and colleges will need additional funding and resources to deliver an education that enables children and young people to achieve their potential, not cram for next year’s tests or exams.

Will my child have to sit tests and exams next year?

Everyone’s lockdown learning experience has been different, and some pupils may have developed unhelpful learning habits, misconceptions and misunderstandings. Teachers cannot start from where pupils ‘should’ be, or even where they were before lockdown. Trying to ‘catch-up’ will put too much pressure on pupils, educators and families – cramming in more than a term’s curriculum within a few weeks of returning to school, after months of uncertainty, won’t lead to learning that lasts. You can read more about our principles for learning in September here.

The NEU believes that when children return, knowing their pupils and their learning needs, teachers must be given the freedom to focus on:

  • Assessing gaps in pupils’ learning; 
  • Supporting students to consolidate what they have learned; 
  • Setting expectations for pupil progress that are realistic and fair for young people, given the learning that has been missed by so many, and which do not undermine welfare and wellbeing.

The NEU believes that Government tests in primary schools should not go ahead in 2020/21. These tests are used solely for school accountability purposes and do not help teachers to support children’s learning, which should be the focus at this time. The union is working with campaign group More Than A Score to make this case to Government. Thousands of people have signed a petition calling for Government primary tests to be dropped next year.

In secondary schools, we believe it will be impossible to carry out GCSE and A-Levels in the usual way in 2021. We are pressing the Government and exam regulator Ofqual to quickly decide that content should be slimmed down and examined differently. This will enable schools to focus on pupils’ needs and on deeper learning rather than on passing tests.

If you are unhappy about the decisions made by your school or college, or you have concerns generally, you should contact them to discuss it in the first instance. If you do not feel your concerns have been addressed, you could consider writing to the school governors: this could include the board or trustees, if your school is an academy ,or the local authority. You may also wish to write to your MP and local councillor raising your objections.  

Will my SEND child get the support they need and are entitled to in September?

The DfE advice says schools should be consulting with parents and carers of SEND children about arrangements for the Autumn term. Annex B of the advice for all schools states: “settings should consider any challenging behaviours or social or emotional challenges arising as a response to lockdown and offer additional support and phased returns where needed.”  The NEU supports the idea of phased returns where they are agreed with parents/carers as the most appropriate way for their child to return to school in the Autumn term. They should not be a substitute for inadequate provision being in place. More information on NEU policy can be found here.

Children with an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan should, from the end of July, be able to fully access the support named in it from their school and local authority, as the Government is not planning to issue any further notices giving local authorities flexibilities around their duties.

The NEU has issued a separate checklist for SENCOs in mainstream schools which includes questions they should be discussing with school leaders to ensure that all SEND pupils can return to school safely and with the right support in place. It includes questions on risk assessment, support staff and specialist staff, transport, curriculum and behaviour.

Some of the questions you might want to discuss with the SENCO in September are:

  • Are arrangements in place for pupils to safely access quiet spaces and sensory rooms during the school day? How will they be cleaned between use? 
  • Will my SEND child get consistent support from the same key worker where possible?
  • Will my SEND child still be able to access the support from specialist teachers/peripatetic staff that they had before coronavirus?
  • How will learning, transitions and extra support for SEND pupils be planned?
  • What arrangements are in place for remote education for pupils who cannot attend school?

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