June 1 re-opening: The concerns and considerations of a headteacher

Written by: Rachel Jones | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Like headteachers across the country, Rachel Jones is working with her team to plan for a possible June 1 re-opening. She talks us through her thinking, how she plans to set-up her school, and the pressure that comes with such a significant responsibility

There are very mixed feelings about the potential re-opening to Reception, year 1, and year 6 pupils from June 1.

This anxiety is fed by the inconsistencies and contradictions in government guidance and briefings, from the concerns raised by the British Medical Association about some aspects of the science and “conflicting evidence” (BMA, 2020), and also the blind determination of government that it will be safe on June 1.

There are so many complex, logistical steps to allow a “safe as possible” re-opening after the coronavirus lockdown and there are many concerns raised by staff, which all adds to the responsibility and pressure hanging over our planning and decisions.

The never-ending reams of guidance that has been produced since prime minister Boris Johnson announced the plans has also complicated our planning.

As I write, with two weeks to go, the current national situation remains concerning. The number of new cases across the country remains in the thousands daily, the infection or R rate is not yet consistently low, and the scientific evidence regarding the children is sketchy at best, with many, many unknowns (as was confirmed by the DfE’s summary of scientific advice published on May 15).

The refusal of authorities in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland to re-open schools also cannot be ignored.

One of biggest barriers to the June 1 re-opening for us – like for many older schools – is the limitation of space in the school building.

The main corridors to classrooms are barely three-feet wide, so not wide enough for single file with adequate distancing. Nor can there be one-way systems, as the Department for Education’s (DfE) May 11 guidance advises, as two classrooms at the end lead to an impasse.

A one-way system is possible for year 1 and in the early years. However, the size of the room for nursery and Reception allows for a maximum of just 11 children. The 15 recommended in the government guidance would be a push even under normal circumstances. Obviously, the outdoors is an option we will be strongly considering.

We have created enhanced hygiene and health and safety systems. Increased resources have been ordered. Each class “bubble” will have its own dedicated space in school, their own toilet area and their own cleaning and hygiene pack with colour-coded cloths and products. The office area and kitchen also have their own zones with a similar system of cleaning packs.

All children in our school will receive a pencil case with a pen, pencil, ruler, rubber, whiteboard pen, pencil sharpener, glue stick and highlighter. This is a clear, plastic pencil case that can be easily wiped down and cleaned by the children or staff.

Each child will have their own book for the final half-term for all work to be presented in. This will be accompanied by a whiteboard and a closed procedure maths booklet, such as Schofield and Sims. These can be self-marked and will remain in the child’s place at all times.

Children are being asked not to bring water bottles to school. We will provide disposable cups for the duration of this half-term. Parents will not be allowed into the school building under any circumstances and will be asked to email teachers or telephone the school office with any messages.

A one-way system for parents will operate – entering through one gate and leaving by an alternative route. In the morning, lunch boxes will be placed on a trolley on the school playground – sectioned for each bubble. This trolley will be taken in by a member of staff, the handle cleaned first.

Individual discussions will be held with all staff members. Highly vulnerable staff will be asked to continue to work from home, supporting online correspondence with children who are still learning from home and the planning of activities.

We will organise our class bubbles with one allocated member of staff initially. In the first instance, there will be no midday assistants and teaching assistants will be asked to continue to work from home.

We will be choosing to operate a four-day teaching week – Monday to Thursday. The Friday will allow limited staff numbers to be in school to prepare for the following week – plan the activities and timetables, plan, deliver and feedback on the home learning, and thoroughly clean their bubble zones.

Staff will have access to face coverings and face masks for appropriate times in the day and if they choose. The staff toilet has very limited space (around 1mx2m) with no ventilation. As such, the disabled access toilet will be decorated and improved for their access – with better ventilation.

Within our four-day timetable, we will have a wider arrival and leaving period. Children will arrive between 9am and 9:45am, leaving between 2:30pm and 3pm. In the first instance, children will have the first hour to chat, share news and thoughts, and complete an independent calming activity.

The second session (after a break) will be an English focus, the third (after lunch) a maths session, and the day will end with a PSHE-focused activity. As much as possible will be delivered outdoors. This will then expand to closer to a full day with staggered starts if more year groups are included – as the government has said it wants to do. There is some flexibility in this model, to allow for increasing levels of attendance, especially from younger pupils or those with SEN.

At playtimes, the outdoor area will be zoned for each bubble. Teachers will decide each morning which section they would like for their class. Outdoor equipment will be cleaned by the teacher in that zone before use.

All lunches will be collected independently from the packed lunch trolley or a set-up school lunch station. For the remainder of the term, lunches will be planned that can be wrapped in sandwich paper – wraps, baguettes, burgers, hotdogs, etc – and a self-serve system will be in place.

Children will collect their named lunch, cup and dessert – the need for cutlery will be reduced as much as possible. Lunches will be taken back to their individual desks within their class bubble to eat. Clearing will be individualised as much as possible and then children will go out to their dedicated playtime zone.

I will continue to communicate with parents via letter (emailed), our closed school Facebook site, Twitter, and through videos posted online. In some situations, conference calls via Zoom can be arranged too.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has been a phenomenal support through every step – from the general secretary Paul Whiteman to our regional rep Simon Kidwell. I fully agree with their concerns, which form part of the current national debate on the safety of schools re-opening.

Regardless of personal feelings towards the wisdom of easing of lockdown at this point, my view is that year 6 and year 1 coming back is a manageable feat.

However, at this juncture, the government has not yet provided clear, understandable and reliable evidence regarding the safety of pupils, especially the younger ones – who learn through play, social interaction, communication and language and who need that nurturing approach in order to develop confidently.

Furthermore, the operation to prepare an early years environment to some purposeful level is complicated and cannot be rushed. For this age range, I think it would make more sense for practitioners to spend this half-term working together to agree a purposeful and manageable system which can then be implemented from September.

Finally, I still feel that there is not enough clear evidence and guidance on the levels of support required for staff and pupils from families from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, who are seemingly more susceptible to the virus.

Ultimately, I am concerned about the implications of a child or staff member developing Covid-19 and the potential impact of an outbreak in the community.

If this happens, then we will need to approach the situation from two points of view. The professional and the personal:

• The professional: Revisit the risk assessment – was it followed, are there loopholes/gaps? Are we as a group being careful enough? Did the outbreak occur from inside school or from another location? Can the local authority support us? Have there been other similar incidences locally, regionally, etc? Do we need support from Public Health England?

• The personal: What might be the impact of this on the mental health of others in our school family, including other parents, teachers, the leaders in school, and the governors (who are ultimately responsible). How will it affect the relationships within the school community?

There is a tremendous weight of expectation and responsibility on the shoulders of headteachers and governing bodies – and we have not even seen all the evidence on which the decision to re-open has been taken. These responsibilities and considerations make headship a very unenviable job at this moment in time.

  • Rachel Jones is headteacher of Kingsley St Johns Primary School in Cheshire.

Further information & resources

  • BMA: Covid-19 and re-opening of schools, letter to the National Education Union, May 15, 2020: https://bit.ly/3fZKIYn
  • DfE: Overview of scientific information on coronavirus (COVID-19), May 15, 2002: https://bit.ly/2X9QMVA
  • DfE: Actions for educational and childcare settings to prepare for wider opening from June 1, May 11, 2020: https://bit.ly/2WoJjTa
  • DfE: Coronavirus (COVID-19): implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings, May 11, 2020: https://bit.ly/2yN0pkQ

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