Schools must start thinking about how to reopen

No matter how fraught it is, schools must own the process of reopening – otherwise it will be done to us, not with us

Geoff Barton

Coronavirus: Heads are faced with a challenge, given government guidance on closing schools, writes Geoff Barton

The hot topic this week has been when schools should reopen. Frenzied speculation across the media appears to have been fuelled by unnamed ministers, ex-ministers and unnamed friends of unnamed ex-ministers who reportedly want to see a return to the classroom sooner rather than later.

These are the so-called "hawks" in government who want the lockdown lifted in a few weeks’ time.

What follows is a reality check.

The reopening of schools is not something that can be done by fixing on a date and declaring them to be back in business. Frankly, many parents will be too scared to send their children to school, and a significant number of staff who are in high-risk groups, or live with loved ones in high-risk groups, will feel likewise. Quite right too.

So the key to reopening schools will first be to build confidence among parents, pupils and staff that it is safe to go back.

This will be no easy task. The stark reality is that the coronavirus will not have gone away. It is unlikely that there will be a vaccine for 18 months or more. So, the risk of infection will still be a lurking danger.

That means we will need to build a strategy to manage the risk.

This requires a great deal of careful thinking. But it would seem likely that such a strategy would need to incorporate social distancing measures – such as limiting class sizes, and staggering breaktimes, and perhaps phasing in certain year groups ahead of others.

It would also require resourcing for regular deep cleans of the premises, and consideration of protective equipment such as masks. It does not help that there continues to be scientific disagreement over the efficacy of masks, but it is hard to believe that they won’t have a role to play in reassuring and protecting people.

The good news is that schools are very good at managing processes. They do it all the time with tricky problems such as safeguarding and behaviour.

But this is obviously a totally unparalleled situation that requires guidance from government about best practice, especially in matters beyond our normal remit, such as clear public health guidance and the actual provision in sufficient quantities of any protective equipment.

All this will help to build confidence that it is possible to reopen schools in a way that manages the risk and ensures the safety of the whole school community.

This is essential for two reasons. The first and most obvious is that a core principle of the education system is the safety and wellbeing of pupils and staff. The second is that the entire national strategy in fighting Covid-19 is to reduce the rate of infection. It would make no sense at all to plunge back into the reopening of schools without being absolutely sure the decision wouldn’t immediately unleash another spike in infection rates. 

Given these days of uncertainty and anxiety, it will have become very obvious to all of us by now that this issue is finely balanced. Easy comparisons with other nations, the wilful ignoring by some pundits that schools aren’t just full of young people but of all the adults who work there too – all this is unhelpful, and merely fuels anxiety. 

But it’s also clear that we cannot leave schools closed for the next 18 months while scientists endeavour to produce a vaccine. The stark fact is that a prolonged closure of schools will itself cause real harm to many children. 

This will particularly be the case with disadvantaged children, who often lag behind other children in terms of educational attainment already. They are at home without the daily support of teachers and classroom assistants, and often without reliable internet connections and digital platforms that give them access to online resources. 

Schools are doing their best in these circumstances by providing various resources. But there is a limit to what can be achieved when children are scattered in homes far and wide out of regular contact. The longer this lockdown goes on, the more that these problems will deepen. Truly, in educational terms, as the rich get richer, the poor will get poorer.

Then there are those year groups who are at key points in their education. In particular, these are Year 6 pupils who are due to go to secondary school in September, and Year 10 students who are partway through GCSE courses. The sooner we can get these pupils back in school and provide them with the teaching they need, the resumption of the reassuring rhythms and routines that schools give, the better.

But none of this will be achievable with a top-down approach. It will need wide consensus and deep reassurance among parents and staff for any return to school, whenever that might be possible.

There are those who think we should not be talking about this at all at the present time, that it is in some way destabilising to be having this conversation, that we are scaremongering. 

However, in truth, the opposite is the case. We have to start actively thinking and preparing for how a return to school can be safely achieved. Otherwise it will be something that is done to us rather than with us. 

There is no escaping the fact that this is a fraught issue. People are frightened and anxious. They worry that their children will become infected, that they will be infected, that they will pass on the infection to loved ones, and that more people will die.

Building confidence in such circumstances is a huge challenge. But it is the only viable pathway out of the school shutdown. We have a window of opportunity now in which we can plan, look at how other countries are handing this situation, and develop a sensible strategy.

Of course, changing scenarios will make any single plan unlikely to be the finished article.

But the process of thinking rationally, asking the endless "what if’s" while seeking the necessary supporting evidence – all this will help us also to manage our own fears and concerns.

As Dwight Eisenhower may or may not have said: "Plans are worthless but planning is everything."

Planning for the eventual reopening of schools isn’t scaremongering. It’s the way we begin to pave the way to some kind of normality, to a time when the important social function of education will have never seemed more important or more welcome.

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

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