#TrustLeaders feedback on DfE ‘return to school’ guidance

Sarah Ginns

Following yesterday’s publication of the government’s COVID-19 ‘recovery strategy’ and the associated guidance from the DfE; a number of our #TrustLeaders members have been feeding back some of their questions, views and concerns. This is shared in the hope that the guidance can be made clearer and helps to answer these questions and concerns, whilst being firmly grounded in scientific evidence. The following is only based on a sample response, but we hope it provides a steer on where further clarification and consideration is needed:

For almost eight weeks, many schools have remained partially open for the most vulnerable children across our communities, and to the children of critical workers who remain on the front-line during this crisis. The number of children in schools has therefore remained – generally speaking – very low, meaning that trusts and schools have been able to both protect them and avoid requiring large numbers of staff to be in school at any one time. They have therefore been able to support staff who are particularly vulnerable to this virus to work from home.

Despite these measures, these past eight weeks have been difficult; and prioritising the wellbeing of pupils and staff has been of central importance. Forum Strategy has established a #TrustLeaders wellbeing group, which is feeding back to government on staff wellbeing issues on a fortnightly basis. Leaders have done so with hope and faith that when the time came to begin a wider return to school, the wider government and the DfE in particular would ‘have their backs’ with guidance underpinned by clear scientific and public health evidence – communicated with clarity. This clarity – it is generally felt – has not yet emerged to a sufficient degree.

On behalf of our #TrustLeaders member trusts, we wish to raise with the DfE the following key concerns and request further consideration and clarity:

  • Leaders would like more clarity about how scientific knowledge about the virus and its transmission has led to the decisions within the DfE guidance; leaders generally do not yet feel sufficiently confident in requiring wider staff to return to the classroom and school environment.
  • Critically, in requesting that schools begin this next stage of reopening, many leaders are concerned that school staff are being asked to do something in their professional lives that is at odds with what they are being asked to continue to do in their private lives. This is a source of great anxiety, on top of the wellbeing concerns already generated by this unprecedented situation.
  • There are real concerns amongst school staff regarding the apparent mismatch between the ‘COVID secure’ guidance for workplaces and the DfE guidance which suggests that PPE and face masks will not generally be needed in schools. These present particular concerns for teachers of younger children, who cannot be expected to maintain social distancing or adequate personal hygiene practices.
  • Concerning to many is the apparent acceptance on behalf of the DfE that it will be virtually impossible to maintain any form of social distancing within the school environment; and that this will become an even greater problem the more children are attending school and the more staff are therefore required to be in school. Again, without explicitly articulating the scientific evidence behind this ‘acceptance’ there is real concern about the risks to the health of our staff, pupils and wider communities.
  • Many teachers and other staff who come into regular contact with children (in particular in primary schools) are themselves vulnerable to coronavirus due to underlying health conditions. This is already having a significant impact on the number of classroom teachers and teaching assistants in particular who are currently unable to be physically present in school. This is highly likely to become more of an issue when more children return to school and more classroom-based staff are required.
  • On the issue of social distancing, it would have been helpful to have some specific guidance regarding the size of room required to accommodate the smaller class sizes proposed in the guidance documents – in order to better support planning for 1 June.
  • If the expectation is to return all primary-aged children to school a month before the end of the summer term; not only will this be impossible to accommodate whilst also attempting to implement appropriate social distancing within classrooms; we are concerned this will not have allowed sufficient time for the impact of reopening since 1 June to be fully understood before taking this next critical step.
  • Greater clarity is required regarding the expectation that secondary schools will accommodate ‘some face to face contact’ with pupils in years 10 and 12 before the end of the summer term; whether this will be physically face to face and how to manage parental expectations of what this will entail, blended with ongoing home learning.
  • Leaders require clarity now as to whether schools will be expected to remain open during the coming half-term and/or summer holiday; and therefore whether there will be a continuation of the FSM funding and voucher schemes. This is of particular concern given that school leaders in particular have been supporting the wellbeing of their staff through rota systems but have been on ‘high alert’ themselves throughout this crisis – and therefore need to know they are guaranteed a proper break.
  • Following the Prime Minister’s announcements regarding a return to work for staff in a much wider range of sectors, schools need clarity over whether they are to be expected to accommodate, not only the current children of critical workers, as well as those in the specified year groups, but also those in other year groups whose parents are being told to return to work.
  • There needs to be assurance that appropriate test, track and trace processes will be implemented across the school and early years system as a priority – in order to reassure parents and staff and to ensure school reopening does not inadvertently facilitate a potential second wave of the virus?
  • Finally, there needs to be clarity from the DfE that it understands that what pupils, parents and staff understand to be normal schooling will be impossible for many months to come. We should be under no doubt of the physical and mental health and wellbeing needs of pupils and staff alike, and the need for trusts and schools to make these their priority.

This is shared in order to help government consider some of the key concerns that leaders have, and to help them to address some of the concerns in the coming days.

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