Whether schools reopen this year is the question that’s key to both controlling the spread of Cornonavirus and also the financial impact of the delayed return to work of the UK’s population.
It appears, however, that we’re still unsure as to when (or if) schools will be allowed to reopen before the end of 2020.
If parents were to cast their mind back to early February (that’s just ten weeks ago) they may recollect those stories in the news, the ones about a new virus, one that first began in China during December and had quickly spread across into many countries worldwide.
Initially discounted as a type of flu, this became known as Covid-19, the Coronavirus, and the best and the brightest of the world’s medical and scientific community set about trying to identify how it was transmitted – and what could be done to stop its progression through the world’s population.
Initially, very few scientists knew how it was affecting people, other than it appeared to target people’s respiratory systems and seemed to be passed by airborne transmission. This suggested that one way to protect people, and possibly to control its spread was to drastically restrict the amount people coming into close proximity with each other.
Categories of people ‘at risk’ were also identified and Governments around the world suggested that those specific groups should stay at home for their own protection, along with those people who might believe they had some of the symptoms that were becoming associated with Covid-19.
But what about the children?
Anyone who was either working in schools or were parents of school-age children would have, by late February or early March, become aware that an ever-increasing amount of teachers were off-sick. Some were ill with symptoms of Coronavirus, others were self-isolating due to being either at-risk themselves or having at-risk members of their families.
This was because schools were one of the few places where, every day, many hundreds of people from different families would come together, sit in close proximity for many hours, and then return home, taking any bugs or illnesses with home them.
There are probably very few parents who’ve not said something like, “I only ever get a cold when my children go back to school” and so for reasons like this, the Government identified that something needed to be done to control the possible spread of the Coronavirus, especially within schools.
Having been working in a secondary school in the weeks up until this address I can attest to how confusing and stressful it was for all concerned. Teachers were coming into school in the morning, only to be told at lunchtime that due to being in an ‘at risk’ category they’d have to go home.
Next would follow some frantic conversations and phone calls to see who could cover that teacher’s class, and a few others too. The situation was rapidly becoming untenable.
Announcement by Boris Johnson
This was why, in his Wednesday 18th March address, Boris Johnson stated UK schools will be closed “until further notice”.
Effect upon pupils
The emotional impact of this announcement could be seen on the faces of the pupils. Some may have felt, initially at least, pleased they would no longer have to ‘go to school’, however, this would also mean they’d no longer be able to meet their friends until the lockdown was lifted.
End of year celebrations? Stopped.
Leavers proms and related events? Cancelled.
School trips? Nope. Everywhere that schools could visit were being closed down.
And what of their exams? Would exams be sat later in the year, or early in 2021? How would grades be set? What about securing a place in a sixth-form or going up to University? How would that work?
Clearly many questions remained unanswered on the day the schools shut in March.
So, although the Government had taken the decision to close schools, parents and teachers then asked, when will schools reopen? That was something to consider later, since at that stage neither the Government, nor the medical profession, or the scientists had any solid idea as to when that date might be.
School places for children of NHS staff and key workers
Whilst closing schools to all pupils, it was also agreed that schools would stay open, albeit with a drastically reduced skeleton teaching staff, to provide places purely for the children of NHS staff, key workers and vulnerable children, so they could continue to work and support those families during the pandemic crisis.
Teachers were therefore tasked with hastily (and it has to be said quite successfully) pulling together an online based homeschooling set of teaching materials for their pupils to use when at home for the duration of the lockdown.
Online teaching became the norm
Parents, pupils and teachers then had to become used to working together online, using a mixture of Zoom, Skype and other learning specific platforms, many of which have waived their fees for parents during the pandemic.
Tutors switched from face-to-face to 100% online
Along with many other tutors we too revised how we operated, switching from working with students face-to-face to working with pupils online only too. From talking to other tutors, many of whom are teachers as well, it was clear that they too were revising their methods so as to ensure social distancing rules were being followed.
Few children currently attending schools
Data from the schools that have remained open suggest less around 5-10 percent of their usual school roll of pupils are currently attending. Within those schools strict self-distancing rules are being adhered to.
Social distancing may prevent schools reopening
Schools are closed to all but the few children allowed to attend, because the advice provided to the Government from the scientific and medical profession had suggested that this was the safest way to control the spread of the virus.
This means, however, that until a way can be found to control the spread of Covid-19, or to mitigate its effects, reopening them for full school attendance appears impossible at present.
Government pressed on date schools will reopen
It appears that in every press conference or interview with a member of the Cabinet a reporter asks the question, “When will the schools reopen?”
It often feels as if the news companies are trying to drive the agenda by repeatedly suggesting reopening dates, only to have a member of the Cabinet restate that until evidence from the scientific and medical advisers is clear, no date can be set.
Will schools reopen in September 2020?
One plausible date is that schools could, in some format, reopen at the start of the new year’s term in September 2020. The devil’s in the detail, however, since if social distancing measures are still required then it would appear impossible to allow all pupils to return at the same time.
Perhaps there will be a staggered return, either part year or just a few years, but whatever is chosen it may be impossible to have a full class of 30 or so pupils in the same room at the same time.
There are plans in the making to have a staggered approach and mitigate risk of spreading the virus at the same time as working in social distancing measures.
When asked about opening schools after Easter the Government re-stated that the lockdown was expected to last until at least into May, or June at the earliest.
Might primary schools begin first in June?
One approach would be to allow primary schools for KS1 and KS2 to return first, since those children would be the ones who may find it more difficult to study at home.
Some comments from the Government have been inferred as meaning that that primary schools may well open in June, but the exact timetable is still undecided and must take account of whether the rate of Covid-19 infection is decreasing or continuing to rise.
Or perhaps Secondary Schools will be first?
Alternatively, the secondary schools, for years KS3 and KS4 could reopen first. This would mean that those pupils who have missed the end of their year 6 would at least be able to begin their year 7 in their new senior schools as soon as possible.
For those pupils it’s certainly going to be quite a shock to their system. In March they were still in primary school and then suddenly, having been removed from there and used to the more relaxed formality of homeschooling, they will be dropped into their secondary schools without the usual induction days afforded to all KS2 pupils.
GCSE and A-Level exam grades
For those many pupils in their GCSE year, March 2020 was simply a month on the calendar, well before they would have progressed into exam revision season. That being so, for many of those pupils there is worry and uncertainty as to what their actual GCSE grades will be and on what basis will those grades be assessed.
What if they’d achieved better than predicted, due to last minute revision? How might this be taken into account?
Many were intending to either secure an apprenticeship, or to enter the sixth form, but are worried over how this will actually work out for them.
According to Ofqual, all exam boards and the Government it is their teachers who will determine each pupil’s final marks.
To do this their teachers will have to consolidate various measurements of student performance including ongoing teacher assessments, grades of mock exams sat and an overview of the work they have completed in the year.
Ofqual have suggested that where pupils disagree with any grades allocated that they can sit an actual exam, the date of which is still to be set.
Teachers have commented this may cause further problems, however, since those pupils would be forced to revise their ‘old’ exam syllabus to retake that exam, whilst at the same time studying their ‘new’ A-level syllabus as well.
What do the Headteachers say?
One of the headteachers’ unions has suggested it would be better if the more senior year pupils returned to school first, as the beginning of a phased approach to reopening schools in England.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said this is because those pupils who would benefit most from a prompt return to school are those in years 10 and 12 who are in the middle of GCSE and A-level courses.
They also feel that those at the end of their pimary school education would benefit too, since they can be prepared more fully for going up to their specific secondary schools.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the ASCL, said the earliest schools might realistically reopen would be in June after half-term. “It can only happen when supported by the science, and there will need to be a lead-in time of several weeks to ensure it is carefully planned.”
He also stressed the need to ensure social distancing continued and that partial introduction of year groups would probably be required.
At risk people don’t suddenly become ‘no longer at-risk’
Teaching unions have voiced concern that opening schools too soon should not be done purely to reduce the economic impact of keeping parents at home. The public health risks of all concern must be taken into account.
To this end the NASUWT has expressed their concerns to the Government and detailed five conditions that need to be in place for reopening and the NASUWT general secretary, Patrick Roach stressed that teachers should not be expected to carry out any cleaning tasks.
Both the The National Education Union and the school leaders’ union the NAHT have stressed that science should determine when schools should reopen. Specifically, Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT, said: “Schools should only reopen when the scientific evidence is clear that it is safe to do so. Safe for pupils, safe for staff, safe for parents.”
No date yet set for schools to open again
During a briefing this weekend, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said no date was set for returning to school, quashing speculation about an imminent return.
As quoted by the BBC , the education secretary said if and when five thresholds in the fight against Coronavirus were reached, a date could be set for schools to reopen:
• the NHS’s ability to cope is fully protected
• the daily death rate is dropping
• infection rates are falling to manageable levels
• there are sufficient supplies of testing and protective equipment
• there is no risk of a “second peak” of infections
Mr Williamson stressed that they would be following medical and scientific advice and only once these criteria were achieved that a date for reopening schools could be set.
He also acknowledged that a phased, staged return would be expected, so as to maintain social distancing.
Comparison with other countries
The UK is able to assess the effectiveness of the return to school policies in other countries, such as France and the Netherlands, who have both introduced a partial return policy for May and June.
In France and the Netherlands a proportion of primary schools pupils will return on 11th May with secondary pupils in the Netherlands returning on 1st June.
No date set for to end homeschooling
Even when a date for reopening schools is set, it seems plausible that not all pupils will return on that date, meaning some families will need to continue homeschooling. How that will work with parents having to stay at home, perhaps when their employers have by then been able to reopen, remains to be seen.
Perhaps there might be a rotating scheduled used, so that pupils alternate between being back at school and homeschooling, rather than keeping one section of the pupils at home longer than the other.
It’s important, therefore, that parents continue to support their child’s ongoing homeschooling so that they have the best possible chance of doing well when they finally have the opportunity to return to school.
It could well be that school will look and feel quite different from what they remember from back in March, but the teachers and support staff will be doing their best to help your children to get back into the routine of schooling as smoothly as possible.