When the government announced that the country’s schools would be closing from Friday due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was with the caveat that they would remain open to vulnerable children, as well as the children of key workers.
The information about who would be classed as key workers and what that provision should look like was extremely broad, and schools have had to make tough decisions under extreme pressure to find a way to make it work.
The difficulty of these decisions should not be underestimated, says James Bowen, director of policy at the NAHT school leaders' union.
“The central message is that this is a last resort,” he says. “The government has said that the vast majority of children should be at home. This provision is for families with key workers where there are no other options.”
And that advice seems to be getting though. Nick Brook, deputy general secretary at NAHT, tweeted on Monday that of the 3,500 schools it had heard from, 94 per cent had fewer than 20 per cent of children in; 74 per cent had fewer than 10 per cent; and 46 per cent had fewer than 5 per cent.
But what are schools doing for those children they are hosting?
We spoke to leaders from across the country to hear their plans and advice for this unprecedented, difficult time.
Coronavirus school closures: staffing
The question of how many staff will be available is a crucial one. In Leeds, Parklands Primary School headteacher Chris Dyson spent last week crunching the numbers, and found that he had around 50 staff available and in the region of 80 children expected to attend. Over the weekend, however, he opted for a different approach.
“We’ve had a total turnaround since Friday,” he says. “My aim was to open up for as many as needed it for this week, but then I had some conversations over the weekend with other leaders and friends who said: ‘That’s totally wrong, you can’t have hundreds of people in your school.’
"A close friend said to me: ‘This is not the Parklands show, it’s not about showing how brilliant you are for having 140 kids in. It’s sending out the wrong message.’”
And so the school had 12 children in on Monday morning; six with key worker parents and six of the most vulnerable. The staff, meanwhile, are “all happy” with a reduced rota in which they will work just one week of the next six.
Vic Goddard, headteacher of Passmores Academy in Harlow, Essex, had 35 students arrive on Monday morning, after a letter was sent out to his school community early last week – before the long-awaited key worker list was published – and the school allowed people to self-define as a key worker, with flexibility where needed.
He had expected around 80 students to attend, but after some “difficult conversations” over the weekend, that number was halved.
The question of introducing “hubs” has been raised by many – where healthy and non-vulnerable staff can be deployed in a school that isn’t their own – but there are issues of increased risk of spreading the virus, in addition to the logistics of DBS checks and accountability.
Andrew Truby, executive headteacher of St Wilfrid's, St Thomas of Canterbury and St Joseph's schools in Sheffield, says: “We have heard talk of hubs but nothing official yet.
“We are essentially doing it as a hub, as we are opening one school of the chain of two schools and then swapping over next week for a deep clean.”
But, he says, schools are still lacking clarification. “We’re not sure how long this will last and what the plan is for when schools are totally closed. We want to be able to offer this for hospital staff for as long as possible, but if you look at the rate that people are going off [work], we won’t be able to accommodate all key workers on an ongoing basis. We’ve got staff on a rota so we can hopefully continue to offer next week to the most essential, if at all in week three.”
Which pupils can access provision?
Leaders have had to make tough decisions about which children to allow into school. Truby says he was initially “concerned by the amount of parents wanting to access the provision where their work isn’t really critical”.
“We had to remember the purpose of why schools are closing: to reduce the spread of the virus,” he says. “We’re looking at this as emergency provision, and if we’re going to risk the lives of our staff and their families to do this, we need to be convinced that it’s going to save someone else’s life or ensure that someone who is vulnerable is going to receive an essential food supply or something like that.”
And so, he continues, the school is offering “emergency childcare” across two sites from 8am to 4pm, while all other students will attend ”virtual school”. He had 45 children on Monday, which dropped to 32 on Tuesday morning after the lockdown announcement, he says.
Likewise, Goddard says he has seen another 50 per cent drop from Monday to Tuesday.
What’s the situation in special schools?
Ruth Whitehead, leader of Market Field School, a special school, in Colchester, explains that all of the school’s 295 students have education, health and care plans (EHCPs), so they are all entitled to attend as normal.
“We’re saying that the safest place to be is still at home,” she says. “That’s the government advice. Then again, we do have some children with extreme needs and they’re still coming in because we’re the best place for them to be.”
“Essex Council asked us to confirm what we need to stay open, so we’ve asked for a few more cleaners and a few more staff for the kitchens at lunchtime,” she says. “My understanding is that they’re going to be called over from other schools, and all their cleaning supplies and food supplies are going to be sent to schools that are staying open.
“I’ve spoken to some other special schools who are having to close because of staffing, but on the whole we’re all just getting on with it.”
What’s happening in alternative provision?
For Leanne Forde-Nassey, headteacher of alternative provision The Key Education Centre in Hampshire, Monday was quieter than initially expected.
“We ended last week making sure that we’d called every family, so we knew who would be taking us up on our emergency service,” she says. “And then on Monday it was about making sure that we had a rota in place."
The rota is made up of staff volunteers, she explains, with a reserves list for each day, so that there is a bank of people waiting in case people have to self-isolate. Ultimately, she says, the goal is to bring in as few staff as possible.
“On Friday we only had 15 families who’d said 'maybe', and we had one child turn up on Monday [out of 150]. The rest have all said they’re either self-isolating or don’t want to take up the emergency service.
“It’s about being responsible and responsive. This week, the plan is to continue opening with that same rota and same set of staff (but sending staff home to make calls if students don’t show up). But from what families have told us, most aren’t planning on sending them.”
How is cleaning being tackled?
Complying with government recommendations around distancing and hygiene during this period is critical, says Goddard, who is employing strategic site use to lower the risk of spreading infection.
“I quarantined our laptop trolleys on Thursday, so they’re in lockdown – the virus only lasts a certain number of days on hard surfaces, so as long as I lock them away for longer than that, they’re safe,” he says.
“I’ve done the same with rooms. I’ve shut down a whole wing of our school, and had a deep clean. So this week those children aren’t coming into a germ-infested building.”
Across Truby’s two sites, distancing and regular cleaning will be key, he says.
“We have got some cleaners, although some are self-isolating,” he says. “We’re managing it the best we can with what we’ve got. Where the children will be throughout the day, the contact surfaces and touch points will be cleaned regularly. But I think it will be hard to get cleaning and other staff going forward as they may not see their role as critical."
At Parklands Primary on Monday, students were divided into two groups of six, with staggered breaks to avoid contact, Goddard explains.
At Truby’s school in Sheffield, five small groups are being taught in different areas of the school, with checks before they are allowed into the building.
“When the parents drop them off, we make sure they stay at a safe distance from the staff,” he says. “We’re checking the temperatures of everyone on arrival, and if they do have a temperature we won’t let them in."
But the children aren’t great at social distancing, he says.
“We’ve had the metre rulers out this morning to teach them what two metres looks like, but we’ve deliberately kept them apart so they’re not all going out to play together. We’ve kept siblings together (although some have said they’d rather not be with their siblings)."
So what are the students who attend actually doing? Schools are opting for different approaches.
At Parklands Primary, the 12 children who attended on Monday were separated into two groups of six and are enjoying hands-on activities, says Dyson.
“They’ve been doing pottery this morning, and I bought a load of seeds at the weekend, so this afternoon they’re going planting,” he says. “It’s the curriculum we’ve always wanted to teach; creativity, outside. Not ‘Come on, we’ve got Sats in 18 school days’ time’. The atmosphere is great.”
For Goddard’s secondary students, however, it’s all about ensuring that those at home and school are at the same level.
“The kids in school are doing exactly what we’ve set for everybody at home,” he says. “I can’t work out the logic of setting good and important work to be doing at home and then getting them to do something different. We want them all to have had their same learning while they’re off, so we can pick it up and have commonality when we get back to school.”
In Sheffield, Truby and his staff are somewhere in between: “We’ve put a rough timetable together to give a kind of routine, but we’re also giving the children choice about what they want to do,” he says.
“We’ve set up a virtual school with all the home learning, so for part of the day they can do their work that we’ve already set them, but because they’re in school and possibly a bit anxious, we’ve got sports every day and different craft activities set up throughout the school, as well as games and reading.
“They’d all tuned in this morning to Joe Wickes [the online fitness trainer] and they were all doing that. We’re just figuring it out each day. We have planned things, but we’re also reacting to the changing situation.”
Free school meals
One of the major concerns around closure has been about children who are eligible for free school meals. Many schools are offering food vouchers, but panic-buying among the general public is an issue, says Keziah Featherstone, head at Q3 Academy Tipton in the West Midlands.
“We’ve purchased vouchers to post home to students entitled to FSM so they can go and buy lunch, but we're now worried that there won't be food on the shelves,” she says.
Dyson shares those concerns. “I’m not going to do vouchers because supermarkets are empty,” he says. Instead, he is preparing for his school kitchen to serve more, not less, as closure begins.
The initial plan was to provide school lunches for all children eligible for FSM in the east of Leeds, but this means hundreds of people coming to collect them from the school. And so Dyson is making plans to provide meals and supplies with less contact.
“We’re still doing all the lunches – we’ve got 199 lunches to be collected today,” he says. “But I‘m working with the catering team now to instead start to make weekly batches. So from next week we’ll have those, and we’ll open up the supply lines and send home a week’s worth of shopping instead.”
In all of these plans, leaders stress flexibility will be needed. Things are changing so fast that having a rigid plan and being unwilling to change from that will likely cause problems down the line.