Coronavirus: Provision and teaching in school during the crisis

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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For the foreseeable future, schools are only open to children of key workers, vulnerable students or those with an EHCP. Matt Bromley looks at what kind of provision we can reasonably offer these pupils at a time of national crisis and staff shortages

What will staff do?

At the time of writing, the government has not issued any specific guidance to headteachers on how they should staff their schools to cater for the children of key workers as well as our most vulnerable students during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Sunday, March 22, the Department for Education simply had this to say: “Schools should discuss (staffing) with their local authority or trust when making decisions about school capacity.” (DfE, 2020a)

They have, however, confirmed that all teachers will continue to be paid as normal and that schools will be funded to pay staff to work over Easter.

Some schools are mandating all staff, except those who are self-isolating, to continue to go to school; others are asking for volunteers and making it clear no-one has to attend if they do not want to.

While, of course, some contextual factors need to be factored into every decision – there is no perfect solution to fit every school.

We should always remember that this is an anxious time for everyone. Some staff will be genuinely worried about attending school for fear of contracting the virus and passing it onto elderly or infirm family members at home.

Others will fear they could already be infected but without symptoms and could therefore pass the virus on to pupils who, in turn, could spread the virus to their key worker parents.

It is a lot of responsibility for any school worker to carry on their shoulders. We need to tell our colleagues that it is okay to be scared, it is natural to be uncomfortable and to be conflicted about what is right: attending school or staying home.

There is no right answer. But, as with all things, humanity, understanding, patience and pragmatism are key. And three things are essential: communication, communication, communication.

I cannot advise you what to do. But I would remind you why we are partially closing schools: if children can stay safely at home, they should, to limit the chance of the virus spreading. The fewer children making the journey to school, the lower the risk that the virus can spread and infect vulnerable individuals. This is a message that the DfE has repeated time and again (Headteacher Update, 2020; Cabinet Office/DfE, 2020).

Surely, then, the same applies to school staff. The fewer adults making the journey to school, the lower the risk of spreading the virus and putting people at risk. Therefore, my approach would be as follows:

  • The school will be open only for the pupils of key workers who have no alternative, for pupils with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) whose families have no alternative, and for vulnerable pupils who might otherwise be in harm’s way.
  • Any child that can be looked after at home, should be.
  • We need to minimise the number of staff on site, so every colleague who can work from home should be allowed to do so.
  • We need to minimise the amount of contact that all staff and pupils have with each other while on site, working at a safe distance of at least two metres where possible and avoiding social contact during breaks.
  • We need to ensure the site is regularly cleaned and that all staff and pupils obey the government guidance on washing their hands regularly and for at least 20 seconds (PHE/DfE, 2020).
  • As soon as a pupil or staff member detects symptoms of the coronavirus, we need to follow the government guidance (PHE/DfE, 2020).
  • Staffing may be done on a rota system to ensure all colleagues get time away from school and certainly get a holiday this term.

What will pupils do?

Once we have staffed our schools, we need to decide what their roles will be and how we will support those pupils in school.

The most important point to note is that schools are no longer to be regarded as “schools” in the traditional sense, teaching the national curriculum. To try to continue with “business as usual” will be impossible with the staffing constraints we are going to face. And, perhaps more importantly, to do so would disadvantage those pupils learning at home.

Indeed, the latest government guidance (DfE, 2020a), states: “We understand that these are extraordinary times. The most important thing is that children of critical workers and vulnerable children are supervised and properly cared for at school. Emergency legislation will lift curriculum requirements for schools, giving flexibility to provide support, activities and education in the way they see fit.”

Attendance reporting procedures were also relaxed, and schools are now only expected to complete a daily spreadsheet and submit a short form by midday each day to help the DfE monitor capacity in the system (DfE, 2020b).

Schools are more like community supervision hubs than schools. As such, the most helpful – and probably obvious – piece of advice I can give is that pupils in school should be doing what pupils at home have been asked to do but under teacher supervision.

The latest guidance (DfE, 2020a), said this about remote learning: “We recognise that many schools have already shared resources for children who are at home and are grateful for this. DfE is working with the BBC and other partners to provide advice and support directly to parents, including online resources they can access for their children at home.”

In the coming weeks, therefore, schools may be expected to do less and there may be a national, coordinated effort to ensure children at home are given meaningful work to do and that parents are better supported in this endeavour.

In the meantime, many schools have provided work in the form of learning packs or online learning platforms. I offered some advice on remote learning in my previous article (Bromley/Headteacher Update, 2020).

Whether we have provided work for pupils at home via paper-based learning packs or online learning platforms, there is no reason why the same materials cannot be accessed in school and cannot form the basis of pupils’ learning there. Considerable time has already been dedicated to creating or collating these materials so why not utilise this for those who will still attend school?

Whether we ask pupils at home and those in school to use paper-based learning packs or online platforms, we need to consider if we will require pupils to process new information or solely engage in retrieval practice activities to revisit and revise prior learning. If the former, then we will need to consider how this is “taught” in school. Will we have subject specialists and is there a danger if we need to use non-specialists or unqualified teachers to deliver a disciplinary curriculum?

If we ask pupils in school to conduct independent research, or engage in discovery-style learning, how will we mitigate the risk they will encounter misleading or inaccurate information, say, and do not know how to spot fake news? How will we counter the problem of some pupils simply not understanding new information because you are not there to assess and diagnose their progress?

As I said in my piece on remote learning, I believe the most effective type of remote learning is retrieval practice but, of course, we cannot expect pupils to only practise prior learning between now and the summer, we must introduce new information to them at some point, so we may also need to consider the use of online teaching.

If we do use online teaching for those pupils at home, can we ensure consistency and reduce teacher workload by recording or indeed broadcasting a teacher while they simultaneously teach pupils in school? Or can we share the same webinar or online videos to all pupils, sent home via links or on the online platform and played on whiteboards in school classrooms?

I also said last time that, in my experience, video teaching works best when we use it didactically as a means of giving explanations rather than trying to facilitate an interactive lesson. These explanations should be delivered in short chunks, with longer pauses for punctuation than we would ordinarily think to give when face-to-face with pupils.

Video teaching also works best when we complement the image of us talking with useful images such as diagrams and mind-maps. Some video-conferencing platforms allow you to broadcast a virtual whiteboard which we may find useful for modelling work both in school and at home.

In my previous article, I said that, if all else fails, one form of remote learning we know is effective is reading books. So, if nothing else, we should encourage pupils to read, read, and read, whether they are at home or in school.

We might consider providing access to ebooks in school and issue a device to each pupil which they alone use, and which is cleaned at the end of each day, rather than share physical books from the school library which could spread the virus.

Reading records and tasks based on pupils’ reading can be used to encourage pupils to reflect on their reading.

Many popular children’s magazines and newspapers such as First News and The Week Junior have electronic versions to which we could subscribe and provide free access.

The BBC is continuing to broadcast Newsround which we could play through the whiteboard each day to educate and inform pupils, including about the coronavirus, in a child-friendly way.

The BBC is also promising to broadcast daily education programmes, and there are plenty of useful materials on YouTube including daily exercise routines for children to follow in class if we do not have the staff or resources to deliver such sessions in person.

And, for younger pupils, daily spellings and times-table work is always time well spent.

Whatever in-school work looks like, school leaders need to be mindful of the impact on their staff’s workload and wellbeing. As I have said, this is undoubtedly – and unavoidably – a stressful time for us all and we must do all we can to limit the pressures that are exerted on our teachers and school staff. Do not expect too much of those staff in school.

What to do if a pupil becomes unwell while in school?

We must keep pupils as far away from each other as possible, ideally observing the two-metre rule of social distancing recommended by scientific and medical experts. This might not always be possible, of course, but it is worth considering.

If a pupil does become ill while in school with symptoms of the coronavirus, what should we do?

The government recommends that we send pupils home and advises us to follow the “staying at home” guidance on the government’s website (PHE/DfE, 2020).

While a pupil is awaiting collection from school, they should be moved, if possible and if appropriate, to a room where they can be isolated behind a closed door, ideally, with an open window for ventilation. If it is not possible to isolate a pupil, they should be moved to an area which is at least two metres away from other people.

If the pupil needs to go to the bathroom while waiting to be collected, they should use a separate bathroom if possible. The bathroom should be cleaned and disinfected using standard cleaning products before being used by anyone else.

If a member of staff has helped someone who was taken unwell with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature, they do not need to go home unless they develop symptoms themselves. They should wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds after any contact with someone who is unwell.

In most cases when a pupil or member of staff becomes ill, closure is not necessary, but this is a decision for the school.

  • Matt Bromley is an education journalist and author with 20 years’ experience in teaching and leadership. He works as a consultant, speaker, and trainer. Visit www.bromleyeducation.co.uk

Further information & resources

  • Bromley/Headteacher Update: Coronavirus: Supporting families and pupils learning from home, March 21, 2020: https://bit.ly/3aePgXB
  • Cabinet Office/DfE: Guidance for schools, colleges and local authorities on maintaining educational provision (including key workers list), March 19, 2020: https://bit.ly/2UnaqMl
  • DfE: Guidance for schools about temporarily closing, March 22, 2020a: https://bit.ly/39ehTma
  • DfE: Coronavirus (COVID-19): Attendance recording for educational settings, March 22, 2020b: https://bit.ly/39bHE6I
  • Headteacher Update: Coronavirus: ‘Every child who can be safely cared for at home should be’, March 20, 2020: https://bit.ly/2WuJRYj
  • PHE/DfE: COVID-19: guidance for educational settings, February 17, 2020: https://bit.ly/2QDXssB


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