Primary schools reopening: what are heads planning?

With schools across the world starting to open their doors, we asked a panel of headteachers some of the important questions

Tes Editorial

Schools reopening after Covid-19 closures

As the debate continues about whether or not schools across England will reopen to certain year groups on 1 June, school leaders have been working around the clock to prepare for the potential return. 

Schools are already open to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, as they have been throughout lockdown. 

However, maintaining social distancing and safety measures across entire year groups will be a big change. Understandably, teachers have a lot of questions about how this will work. 

While headteachers can’t yet provide all the answers, Tes asked a select few – including two heads in countries whose schools have already reopened – how they plan to tackle key practical issues that will arise in those first days back. The panel comprised:

  • Sue Aspinall, headteacher at Junior School Vlaskamp at the British School in the Netherlands
  • Kulvarn Atwal, executive headteacher of two large primary schools in the London Borough of Redbridge
  • Jason Gilman-Hughes, headteacher at a primary school in Nottingham
  • Melissa Heppell, principal of the primary school at the Atlantic Academy Portland on the Isle of Portland
  • Mark Steed, principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British School in Hong Kong

Here’s what they said.

How is your school reducing class sizes to a maximum of 15 as per government guidance?

KA: We can only accommodate and staff Year 6 in classroom groups of 10. This is as well as the key worker/vulnerable group that will continue to be based in the Year 4 area in groups of no more than 10. 

Children in the early years and Year 1 will not return on 1 June, as they will simply find it impossible to socially distance.

I also feel that those are the children who may potentially be traumatised or have their mental wellbeing affected by going into a classroom with no equipment, no toys, desks spaced out, people wearing masks.

MH: Our classrooms vary in size. Following two-metre guidelines, our smallest classrooms can only accommodate six students and our largest 11. We can’t and won't be putting 15 students in any classroom; we can’t accommodate this number in our school and adhere to health and safety guidelines.

It’s a very challenging task to be able to accommodate all the students – even in only Year R, Year 1 and Year 6 – all the time. We simply do not have the space, the members of staff (rather than the one teacher we would usually need to man a class of 30, we now need four members of staff) or the room available. We will do our best to be able to offer a suitable, safe provision for as many students as we can safely have on site.

MS: We haven’t had to reduce class sizes to 15, but we do have to have a one-metre gap between students and not all of our classrooms have allowed that.  

With some of our smaller classrooms we’ve doubled up classes, so we’d relocate one class into a public space like a drama studio, for example, and then the students would be divided across the two classrooms. That’s meant for a class that would normally be 24, we’d have two 12s with a teacher going between the two and a TA going the other way. 

SA: We have decided to run an alternating attendance pattern of one day of school-based learning and one day of remote learning at home. This reduces class sizes to a maximum of 12 as per our government guidance.

Should siblings be in the same bubble, regardless of year group? 

JGH: Probably not. Generally, children prefer to be with their peers. It’s a fine balance, however. If we try to organise siblings as well as these bubbles, making sure there’s a fair distribution of children with additional needs, etc, we could end up with some rather lopsided group sizes.

MH: We have siblings who have been attending Atlantic during partial closure in our key worker group – they have shared a workspace in school and supported each other. I’m very proud of the online provision we have been providing at Atlantic, which has been designed to support parents who have had the challenging job of balancing working lives and homeschooling. This means that we could look at supporting siblings together using the online provision we have in place.

SA: We group our students in their normal classes and therefore by age. Siblings attend on the same days, which helps parents with drop-off and pick-up arrangements.

Will you plan for teaching in 'bubbles' – a teacher teaching half their class on Monday and the other half on Tuesday? And, if so, how is the risk of the 'compromised bubble' being managed?

MH: My interpretation of the guidelines is clear here: the same family group, as we are referring to them, must stay together. This means the children will always be taught by the same member of staff. This will be incredibly important for our youngest students as school will look and feel very different to them than they would normally experience.

KA: Two members of staff will be allocated to teach each class bubble. Children must remain in their bubble groups with their bubble adults throughout the day. 

JGH: We are putting children into small “bubbles” that will operate in that form for the week. That will mean consistent staff and consistency for parents and children.

SA: All staff are deployed to a year group pod. They teach students within this pod and therefore do not teach students from any other year group. They support with duties, lunch cover, PPA, class teaching – doing a range of roles to ensure the timetable and day runs smoothly.

The students from each class are divided into groups A and B. Group A attends on day one and group B on day two. Day one and day two are repeated days on the timetable.

Who sets online work for a teacher’s class while they are in school teaching a 'bubble'?

KA: We will try to balance online responsibilities with those teachers at home so teachers in school don't have to worry about it.

JGH: We’ve decided it’s only reasonable to teach the same work that we are sending home. It ensures there’s not a group of children being given too much disadvantage just because they’re at home, and teachers can’t be expected to be planning two sets of different work in parallel during the week. Teaching in school in a stressful environment, which it will be under these measures, then returning home to respond to the parents and children who are doing home working, is not possible.

MH: As we run a two-form system at Atlantic, we have tried to ensure one of the two teaching staff is available to run the virtual classroom while the other is in school. As numbers grow, however, this will be a challenge, especially in the younger years.

My teaching assistants are incredibly skilled and are continuing to support us. They will also be running their teaching families and will be in school daily. This additional capacity will free up time for teaching staff. 

Any staff who are on the “vulnerable” list or who are shielding will be continuing to work from home, running the virtual school, continuing with weekly phone calls and responding to questions.

SA: The class teachers plan the remote learning alongside their school-based lessons. For the students attending school, the remote learning is handed out at the end of the day for them to complete while at home. 

What happens if the other primary year groups come back before summer?

KA: Space and hygiene requirements do not permit the return of children in the early years and Year 1 in June. If the government continues with its wider opening plan in July, we will reflect on what benefits there have been for Year 6 children and consult further. We are concerned that reintroducing nursery to the routines of a classroom in July and then a second separation over the school summer holiday could have a negative impact upon many of our nursery cohort and on their parents.

JGH: I can’t see how [a full return] can happen. It would only be possible if we no longer needed to socially distance ourselves. It would be impossible to have all year groups in school and be able to maintain social distancing. That would require a huge degree of confidence and would mean that as a country we are operating as “normal”.

MH: The prime minister was clear that the reopening of school was provisional and subject to review, directed by what the science says and a reopening would only happen if the conditions he set out were met; I’m sure they will continue to re-evaluate this process before the start of June and keep us updated. He will do the same when it comes to further opening of primary schools.

We will be constantly re-evaluating any plans we have in place to ensure any provision we offer is safe and manageable. All we can do is ensure that the working conditions for both staff and pupils are as safe as we can make them.

SA: The Dutch government asked all year groups to return on a 50 per cent basis on 11 May. The announcement requires primary schools to start opening fully from 8 June. We will continue the 50 per cent attendance pattern until then.

How are lunch and breaktimes working?

KA: Breaktimes and lunchtimes will be staggered, with Year 6 and key worker groups outside at different times on different areas of the playground. 

The playground space will have to be marked for class-based play space, to avoid class bubble groups mixing. Children will not be allowed to use the large play equipment during break and lunchtimes. This will be cordoned off to prevent its use. Separate containers of play equipment are to be provided for each year group at lunchtime. This will be cleaned at the end of each lunch session.

Halls and dining areas will be used at half capacity and we will also limit the number of pupils in toilet areas.

MH: To accommodate all students, we have had to shift the hours of the day to support breaks. Students will be going home earlier than usual and we won't be running a formal lunchtime – although provision for universal free school meals will still be met, along with the breakfast we have been providing to all our students through the charity Magic Breakfast.

JGH: We will stagger them so each bubble gets their time. We will also separate the playground into zones.

SA: Students have a snack in their classroom mid morning and then a 30-minute morning playtime. They have packed lunches eaten in their classrooms and a 45-minute playtime. The playtimes have been lengthened and are treated as an exercise session. Additional adults deployed to the pod play games and provide activities for the students to do outside.

How are you planning to give staff a lunch break?

MH: We have cover arranged for staff to have short breaks through the day but their working hours will be adjusted to enable them to have their lunch break once the students at school have left site.

We don’t have any midday supervisors at Atlantic; teaching assistants cover this role.

JGH: Each bubble will have at least two members of staff attached, so that they can provide time for each other for comfort breaks. 

KA: We are in discussions about whether or not we close the staffroom. We can give breaks because we have midday staff who will come in at lunchtime just to look after the kids in the playground. We have had midday staff throughout this period.

SA: All staff get an hour-long lunch break each day. These are staggered to ensure that there is appropriate cover for the class and that there are additional adults available to continue the learning in the classrooms. 

How are you managing PPA/non-contact time?

MH: Currently, we are not planning on opening Atlantic on a Friday to ensure a thorough deep clean of the site can happen and to support teachers’ PPA time. This will also ensure we can continue with our online provision that students and parents have been so pleased with – an incredibly important offer, especially for children who are in the high-risk shielding groups and are not able to access school at this time.

JGH: We will need to close the school one day a week for deep cleaning and PPA time. Key-worker children will still be able to attend.

KA: We aren’t expecting any teachers to be in for five days a week. Nothing is completely decided, but the aim is that a teacher is attached to a group for a few days and then maybe off for a while and hands over to another. Otherwise, there will be an unfair burden on a small minority of teachers.

If teachers are in for five days at any point, we will give PPA time. Our teachers are usually released together to plan; obviously that isn't possible at the moment.

SA: The year leaders arrange for each class teacher to receive two one-hour non-contact sessions per week using additional adults assigned to the pod. They arrange this to suit the needs of the students and the curriculum in place.

What are you planning on teaching? 

KA: Curriculum planning will support socialisation and wellbeing of children as a priority. Oracy and language will be carefully assessed and planned for. Daily timetables will include daily outdoor PE, PSHE, reading and maths. Health and hygiene routines for children are also being included in curriculum planning and timetabling. 

Weekly, pupils will engage in art therapy, music and nature exploration and key transition years will focus on transition to the next key stage. In the first two weeks of July, we will arrange for some Year 7 curriculum experiences in collaboration with children’s new secondary schools, but it is unlikely we will be able to take children on visits to their new schools if infection control measures remain in place.

MH: Through the time of partial closure, we have continued to deliver our current curriculum at Atlantic. We have supported a wide range of students with different needs with online teaching resources, which we use on a day-to-day basis.

An important action for us when the government announced partial closure was to ensure all our school Chromebooks were distributed to vulnerable families to enable every student to get online – something I am pleased to say we have achieved.

When we look towards wider opening, we will be continuing to use our online provision. The Year 6 students in school will be following the work on Google Classroom, similar to their peers at home. 

JGH: We will focus on wellbeing and mental health before we consider curriculum. Children will have had a wide range of experiences during lockdown and will need to be able to process their emotions. Also, returning to school won’t feel like it normally does, so that will also require lots of nurturing.

Teaching will be based on the same activities being sent home so that children are getting a similar provision, as far as possible.

SA: We are continuing to teach the curriculum content for term three, but have selected the most important aspects. These have been planned alongside PSHE sessions, physical activities and creative activities, ensuring the students have a more academic morning and then a thematic, creative afternoon.

What are the policies on exercise books and marking?

MH: We will be continuing to use digital devices for all students, which will be wiped down daily. Each child in our school will be allocated a device. This means students can have feedback on work using Google Docs, meaning that two-metre distancing guidelines can be adhered to.

JGH: Children may have paper or books in their trays that they don’t share with anyone else. We will avoid any written marking and focus on verbal feedback only.

MS: We’re marking books, but teachers are being vigilant around handwashing and we are wiping down books and equipment.

How will you support the emotional wellbeing of children who are young and just want to play with their friends? 

JGH: Very carefully. This will be our number-one priority in terms of provision. We will need to take time to explain to them and allow them to explore their feelings and fears so they can be dealt with.

MH: This is a challenging question. A lot of the "teaching" in the first week will be around the new routines. There are some incredible resources available from some very talented authors who have written books to help young children understand why the changes have happened – story time in every early years classroom will be an essential teaching time.

KA: Teachers have excellent knowledge of children’s wellbeing and will review individual needs. At a whole-school level, we have planned a whole-school wellbeing professional learning programme and structure to support pupil wellbeing. Wellbeing foci will involve a therapeutic intervention approach: PE, outdoor learning, art therapy, music therapy and mindfulness.

For families that choose to keep children at home, all in-school learning will be shared for remote learning, and weekly class Zooms will maintain contact for all.

SA: All students returning are keen to interact with their peers and adults. This is why we have lengthened the playtimes and provided plenty of opportunities for team games, discussions and informal conversations. 

What are you doing about personal protective equipment (PPE)?

KA: We will source gloves and masks as PPE for all staff. We’re currently investigating sources. 

MH: Aspirations are to provide PPE as listed in the government guidelines for anyone administering first aid.

JGH: We will be purchasing PPE for staff to wear if they are giving first aid. 

How will pick-up/drop-off work in general?

MH: We have planned for staggered arrival times and drop-offs with all the classes we are accommodating. We’ve placed two-metre distance markings outside the gate to remind parents that they should be social distancing, too. 

We will not allow anyone on site other than teaching staff and students so everyone will collect their children from the gates. We will be asking all parents to be patient – it’s new to us all and will be a slower process than normal, but our community is very supportive and knows what a challenge and change this is. 

KA: Start times for each Year 6 class will be staggered so that families can arrive and leave with minimal risk. Finish times will also be staggered, and there will be separate entry points allocated to Year 6 and the key-worker group. 

A one-way system will be signposted for entry and exit points, and pupils will access classrooms directly from outside if possible. Year 6 children will be dropped at the gate in the mornings.

Only one parent or carer should attend at drop-off and collection. 

JGH: Each bubble will have its own drop-off and pick-up times with five-minute intervals to minimise interactions among parents. They won’t be allowed in the building and will let their children go from the playground and go off site straightaway. We will have three separate entrance routes to avoid pinch points: one for Year 6, one for Year 1 and one for Reception.

SA: We spent considerable time laying out a one-way walking route around the outside of the school building for parents to follow. We allocated doors for students to be dropped off and picked up from.

Class teachers were waiting and delivering students from these doors. This has worked really well. It keeps the atmosphere very calm at the beginning and end of the day. We also operate a flexible window of time for parents to drop off and pick up each day: 8.30am-9am and 3pm-3.30pm.

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