'Schools can’t stay closed until we have a vaccine'

With a viable vaccine a long way off, Geoff Barton argues that schools must start planning for the process of reopening
24th April 2020, 10:37am


'Schools can’t stay closed until we have a vaccine'

Coronavirus: The Government Needs A Plan B For Reopening Schools In September, Says Ascl Leader Geoff Barton

This week, in response to a journalist's question, I suggested that 1 June would be the earliest possible date for reopening schools and colleges to more pupils than are currently attending.

This is not because ASCL, the school leaders' union I head, is advocating or lobbying for a return on that date. My point was that there must be a lead-in time of several weeks to prepare for any reopening, and it cannot, therefore, happen before 1 June.

And, in truth, this would still be a tight time frame. The date of 1 June is less than six weeks away and the degree of planning which is required - planning, that is, against a backdrop of so much uncertainty and shared anxiety - is considerable.

So if the government happened to have that date in mind - and I don't think there's any fixed notion of a date - preparations will have to begin very shortly. The real issue is not the date itself but having sufficient lead-in time to carefully plan how to mitigate and minimise risks.

And, frankly, whenever reopening in some form happens - whether it is 1 June or later in the summer term, or in September or beyond - the danger of coronavirus will not have gone away.

As the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said this week, there is only an incredibly small chance of a vaccine or treatments being ready to use this year.

"We have to be very realistic," he said. "If people are hoping it's suddenly going to move from where we are in lockdown to where suddenly everything is gone, that is a wholly unrealistic expectation. We are going to have to do a lot of things for really quite a long period of time; the question is what is the best package and this is what we're trying to work out." 

My feeling is that we need to be part of this discussion on behalf of all the adults who work in our schools and colleges, on behalf of the children we look after, and on behalf of the parents and communities who look to us for reassuring, calm leadership.

Coronavirus: When will schools reopen?

And, the truth is, it is not going to be completely safe to return to school until a vaccine is available. But surely nobody can seriously think that schools should be closed for the whole of this year, and perhaps next year, too, with all the impact that would have on our children and young people? And what if - and it's not an unreasonable "what if" - a vaccine were never available?

Of course, the decisions that are taken must be guided by scientific and public health advice. But we absolutely do need to be talking about these things, because we - headteachers, teachers, support staff, unions and everybody else with a stake in the education system - need to take ownership of this issue. Otherwise, as I said in my Tes blog last week, all of it will be done to us rather than with us.

And we sometimes forget that we are the experts in what happens in our schools and colleges. We deal with the predictable and the unpredictable on a daily basis. "Social distancing" may be a new term in the educational lexicon, but we are the people best placed to think about which groups of pupils will require the most immediate support, about what it might mean in our classrooms, in assembly halls, at lunchtimes, in the playground.

And if we do not steer this discussion, who will? 

Which brings me to the other point I made this week. We will need to prioritise which students we bring back first.

I had suggested this should be Year 10 and Year 12 students because they are studying for GCSEs and A levels, and Year 6 pupils to support them with the transition to secondary schools in September.

Since then, my primary colleagues are reminding me that there's a strong case for Year 5 pupils, too, because they are also at a key point in their primary education. They need to keep learning from the expert teachers in our schools. And, at this point in their development, it may be that they are old enough to understand social distancing, what it means in school, and how they should conduct themselves.

Of course, you might disagree with the priorities I have set out. You may think we should be looking at ways of bringing in greater numbers of vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils first of all. Or you may have in mind an approach which releases more parents to go back to work. Or you may even think that we shouldn't be thinking about these issues.

I completely understand and recognise the anxiety and concern about the prospect of schools reopening. I fully acknowledge that I am, these days, a union leader and will not be in a school myself. I am not for a moment suggesting that staff or children should be put in harm's way.

On the contrary, careful and thorough planning is vital in building confidence that it is as safe as possible to return. Social distancing must be workable through measures such as limiting class sizes. Vulnerable adults and children must be shielded from risk. Special consideration must be given in settings where social distancing is particularly difficult, for example with very young children and those with complex needs. Soap, hand cleansers and deep cleaning must all be resourced. 

And this does not apply to schools alone. The whole country is going to have to become used to different ways of working, travelling and socialising for many months to come. The post-lockdown plan will not be a resumption of normal life, but a kind of lockdown-lite.

The absolute priority will be to suppress the infection rate, to save lives, avoid another surge in cases, and keep us all as safe as possible in a world that currently feels very unsafe. 

Talking, planning, thinking. These are the things we must do to give our citizens and our country the very best chance of coming through this crisis in good health. And while some may think that this is the stuff for other people to do, I believe that this isn't an issue just for "them". It's one for us.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton


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