Bubbles and staggered starts have restricted the running of schools and colleges in England for almost a year.
From 17 May, restrictions will be lifted and schools will be operating under new guidance regarding the use of face coverings in class, and school trips.
But the latest update has left school leaders asking for more clarity both about what the guidance expects of schools, and when other precautions can be dropped.
Here are the eight questions that still need answering:
1. When can equipment be shared between bubbles?
Currently, the guidance stipulates that individual items cannot be shared, and classroom-based resources cannot be passed between bubbles:
“For individual and very frequently used equipment, such as pencils and pens, staff and pupils should have their own items.
"Classroom-based resources, such as books and games, can be used and shared within the bubble. These should be cleaned regularly, along with all frequently touched surfaces.”
Currently, schools are either paying for extra cleaning, or adding to the workload of school staff. Not being able to share resources also means schools either picking up the additional cost of paying for more resources, or having students miss out.
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2. When will students be able to stop social distancing?
At the moment, the guidance is clear that students must be socially distanced as much as is possible.
“The overarching principle to apply is reducing the number of contacts between pupils and staff. This can be achieved through keeping groups separate (in ‘bubbles’) and through maintaining distance between individuals.
"These are not alternative options and both measures will help, but the balance between them will change depending on the: pupil’s ability to distance; layout of the building; feasibility of keeping distinct groups separate while offering a broad curriculum.”
Although some restrictions will be lifted on 17 May, we expect that social distancing will stop altogether in June.
Will schools have the same rules as people do outside of school? Or will restrictions remain in order to try and minimise transmission in school buildings?
3. When can assemblies return?
School assemblies have gone online, with big gatherings having been ruled out since summer 2020. The guidance says that from 17 May, whole-school assemblies should still be avoided:
“You should avoid large gatherings such as assemblies or collective worship with more than one group.”
However, with the relaxation of group gatherings in wider society, can we expect assemblies to make a return before this academic year is out?
4. Can schools put on end-of-term productions?
In the Christmas term, school nativities took place in a variety of Covid-safe ways, but will summer term productions be subject to the same restrictions?
At the moment, the guidance seems to suggest it would be OK, directing schools to the rules governing all performance venues, which states:
“Performance events with an audience are not permitted (indoor or outdoor) before Step 3 (no earlier than 17 May).”
However, the school guidance also adds:
“You may wish to still consider alternatives such as live streaming and recording performances, subject to the usual safeguarding considerations and parental permission.”
This statement may mean that headteachers avoid bringing parents in, especially when schools must follow the guidance applicable to all theatre venues, which still places restrictions on the way the performances will take place:
“[M]ake sure sufficient controls are in place to maintain social distancing, for example providing clear communication, demarcating spaces, using sufficient ushers. Avoid events such as performances or screenings that may encourage audience behaviours that increase transmission risk, for example crowding, clustering or physical contact between household groups or support bubbles.”
Many schools will not have the space to be able to do this with lots of parents present, and consequently may have to use either online options, or forgo performances altogether.
5. Will observations and learning walks start again?
At the moment, the guidance doesn’t specifically rule out observations and learning walks, however it does make it clear that social distancing and staff contact should be reduced where possible:
“There is strong public health advice that staff in secondary schools maintain distance from their pupils, staying at the front of the class, and away from their colleagues where possible. Ideally, adults should maintain 2-metre distance from each other and from children.”
As a consequence, many schools have stopped staff from moving between classrooms and visitors from going into classrooms.
Leaders are wondering now if schools will receive a direction confirming this type of activity will be able to start again, or if these types of checks will have to be paused until transmission rates reach lower levels.
6. When will staggered starts stop?
Many schools have adopted staggered starts in order to reduce the number of children entering and exiting the school site at the same time. The latest guidance suggests schools should continue to consider this as an option:
"Consider staggered break times and lunchtimes. Make sure you allow time for cleaning surfaces in the dining hall between groups."
School leaders will be wondering when this step might be dropped from the guidance, especially as staggered starts can result in extra staffing costs.
7. Will staffrooms ever return?
The days of chatting in the staffroom over cups of tea and passing the biscuit tin around may feel like a faraway dream at the moment, and the latest guidance makes no indication that staffrooms will make a return in the summer term:
"You should also plan how shared staff spaces are set up and used to help staff to distance from each other. You should minimise the use of staff rooms, although staff must still have a break of a reasonable length during the day."
With staff wellbeing and morale already under immense strain, senior leaders will be asking when these social spaces will be reinstated to give school staff the lift they need.