Even by recent standards of so many relentlessly bewildering weeks, this has been a relentlessly bewildering week.
It began with the prime minister’s announcement that social distancing would be cut from 2m to 1m, and his simultaneous assertion that all school children would be back in September.
Cue confusion, as school and college leaders tried to work out how it would be possible to operate any type of social distancing at all in the crowded reality of a full return.
To add to the uncertainty, the existing government guidance isn’t particularly clear about social distancing.
In summary, it recognises that early years and primary school children cannot be expected to remain 2m apart, but if settings can do so, they should, and that secondary schools and colleges should do so where possible. But it’s hardly definitive.
In fact, the emphasis has always been much more on the so-called "hierarchy of measures" – avoiding contact with anyone with symptoms, as well as hygiene, cleaning and minimising contact and mixing.
But the media and wider public are fixated on the issue of social distancing, perhaps not surprisingly, given how its importance has been rammed home in for the past three months.
Coronavirus: The full reopening of schools
Which brings us to yesterday’s government announcement – via The Daily Telegraph – that social distancing would be scrapped entirely to facilitate a full return in September.
Instead, the plan is based around maintaining "bubbles" of students to minimise the amount they mix with other children and thereby reduce the risk of transmission.
We should perhaps call them "super bubbles", with the prospect of whole classes in primary schools, and entire year groups in secondaries.
The idea of a bubble – super or otherwise – containing hundreds of pupils in a year group is not an easy one.
When you start thinking through how you might stagger lunchtimes and breaks, find ways of keeping groups separate at the beginning and end of the day and ensure enough hand basins and sanitiser stations, then a logistical headache of migraine-like proportions begins to brew.
Hopefully, next week we will see government guidance that gives us some badly needed clarity on all of this, and allows schools and colleges to start the detailed planning.
I suspect it will come down to the art of the possible, what schools and colleges are able to put in place to the best of their ability within their own contexts and the known realities of how children actually behave.
Social distancing isn't possible
In any event, the political course for a full reopening in September is firmly set. That is, of course, what we all want to see. It has always been a question of how we get there.
And we do, at least, have the beginning of a plan that squares with the reality that social distancing isn’t going to be possible.
What we would say to the government, however, is the following three things:
- Provide the public health basis for the approach that is planned. Parents, pupils and staff all need and deserve the reassurance that this is predicated on sound science. The last thing that anybody wants to see is a second wave of infections.
- Ensure that this set of guidance really is crystal clear, free of ambiguities and contradictions, doesn’t require endless updates, and can be implemented in the real world.
- Have a plan B. None of us knows what the infection rate will look like in September. We very much hope that the threat from coronavirus will continue to recede. But if there is an upsurge in infections and we find ourselves back to square one, we need an alternative plan for schools and colleges, one that is more robust than the government’s piecemeal approach over the past few months.
We all get the point – which has been endlessly repeated by the commentariat over the past week – that it would remain unthinkable for pubs and restaurants to be open while schools are at least partially closed.
But whether it is a pub, restaurant or school, there has to be a workable and robust plan that manages the risks that are obviously going to be with us for a long time to come.
School and college life will not return to normal in September, of course. There will be the continued strangeness of living with risk and the accompanying safety measures.
And then there is the likelihood of full or partial closures in response to localised outbreaks of the virus. But it does feel as though at last we have a direction of travel.
And what we know is that schools and colleges are very good at putting in place systems, and working through the details.
The expertise of educational leaders will be vital over the coming weeks and months. Pupils, parents, staff and communities will look to them for reassurance.
Thus it is this local leadership that will navigate us through these challenging times, finally to bring all our pupils back where they need to be – in our classrooms.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets at @RealGeoffBarton