Outdoor lessons, smaller classes and one-way systems from June 1 – but no masks

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

It is not being recommended that pupils wear masks when schools reopen for some pupils from June 1. There should instead be a focus on using adjusted timetables, one-way systems and outdoor lessons to keep pupils apart.

There should also be a focus on “changing habits” to encourage good hand hygiene, while both primary and secondary schools are being advised to “split classes in half” with no more than 15 students per group.

The advice comes from two pieces of Department for Education (DfE) guidance, both published on Monday (May 11), a day after prime minister Boris Johnson revealed that schools could begin reopening for some pupils from June 1.

The government’s plan says that if the infection rate – or “R-rate” – of the coronavirus remains below 1, then from June 1 primary schools should open their doors for all Nursery, Reception, year 1 and year 6 pupils.

Furthermore, the DfE “will ask” secondary schools, sixth form and further education colleges to “offer some face-to-face support to supplement the remote education of year 10 and year 12 students who are due to take key exams next year”.

A DfE press statement on Monday (May 11) said that schools are being asked “to plan on this basis, ahead of confirmation of the scientific advice”.

Reception, years 1 and 6 have been chosen “because they are key transition years” while years 10 and 12 are “preparing for key examinations next year, and are most at risk of falling behind”.

For secondary schools, the guidance document – Actions for educational and childcare settings to prepare for wider opening from June 1 – adds: “From June 1, we expect that secondary schools and colleges will be able to offer some face-to-face contact with year 10 and year 12 pupils. This will not be a return to full timetables or pupils back in school or college full-time, rather some support to supplement pupils’ remote education.

“In line with implementing protective measures and reducing contacts, schools and colleges should limit the attendance of the year 10 and 12 cohort in the setting at any one time and to keep students in small groups.”

The children of key workers and vulnerable children will also continue to attend schools as they have been entitled to do throughout the lockdown.

The DfE has said that, depending on how things go, “the aim is for other primary years to return later in June". It added: “There are currently no plans to reopen secondary schools for other year groups before the summer holidays.”

And while there will be no penalties for families who do not send their children to school from June 1, the DfE says they will be “strongly encouraged to take up these places”.

The government’s plan goes against the strategy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where schools are almost certain to remain closed to the majority of pupils until September.

The move has sparked concerns from education unions about the plausibility and safety of implementing social distancing measures in schools, especially with very young children.

The DfE is advising that schools prioritise the minimising of “contact and mixing” between groups of pupils and the promotion of good hygiene.

Its guidance on health measures schools can employ – Implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings – states that for primary schools “classes should normally be split in half, with no more than 15 pupils per small group and one teacher (and, if needed, a teaching assistant)”.

It continues: “For secondary schools and colleges, the same principle of halving classes will normally apply. It is also sensible to rearrange classrooms and workshops with sitting positions two metres apart.”

In the event of teacher shortages, the guidance urges primary and secondary schools to allow teaching assistants to lead classes “working under the direction of other teachers in the setting”.

It adds that where possible students and staff should only mix in “a small, consistent group and that small group stays away from other people and groups”.

As such, pupils and where possible teachers should remain in the same groups, using the same classrooms spaces from day-to-day.

The guidance adds: “Ensure that the same teacher(s) and other staff are assigned to each group and, as far as possible, these stay the same during the day and on subsequent days, recognising for secondary and college settings there will be some subject specialist rotation of staff.”

The use of shared facilities such as dining halls and staffrooms should be staggered between groups with cleaning in-between, while the use of shared resources should also be limited. There should be a limit, too, on the number of pupils allowed to enter the toilets.

One way systems around the school or segregated corridors with a divider down the middle could be used, while staggered break times, lunch times, assembly groups, drop-off and collection times are advised.

Parents should also be given protocols to minimise adult-to-adult contact, while schools are being asked to ensure that the use of public transport for travel to and from school is minimised. The DfE has said it will publish further guidance on safe travel “in the coming weeks”.

Schools should also consider adjusting their timetable to decrease the movement of pupils around the school and consider how outdoor space can be used as much as possible for lessons and exercise. Soft furnishings and equipment with intricate parts should be removed as they are hard to clean.

Face masks, meanwhile, are not recommended as they may not be used correctly and can increase the risks: “Wearing a face covering or face mask in schools or other education settings is not recommended. Face coverings may be beneficial for short periods indoors where there is a risk of close social contact with people you do not usually meet and where social distancing and other measures cannot be maintained, for example on public transport or in some shops.

“This does not apply to schools or other education settings. Schools and other education or childcare settings should therefore not require staff, children and learners to wear face coverings. Changing habits, cleaning and hygiene are effective measures in controlling the spread of the virus.”

The government has also maintained its position that “the majority of staff in education settings will not require PPE”.

Responding to the plans, the National Association of Head Teachers has said that getting all primary pupils back to school within seven weeks was “wildly optimistic, to the point of being irresponsible”.

General secretary Paul Whiteman added: “The government’s determination is for all primary school children to return to school before the summer for a month. This is not currently a feasible scenario. The availability of school staff, the sheer number of pupils, and the sizes of school classrooms and corridors, combined with the need for social distancing measures, mean that the government’s calculations simply don’t add up.

The National Education Union called the timetable “reckless”. Joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted added: “This timetable is simply not safe. Education staff do not feel reassured that the government is taking these steps with public health in mind.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, is also concerned: “It is not clear to us how the reintroduction of such significant numbers of pupils in primary schools can be safely managed, particularly considering that Reception and year 1 comprise very young children with whom social distancing is extremely difficult.

“We welcome the prime minister’s assurance that this timescale is not set in stone and will be postponed if necessary, and we will continue to work constructively with ministers and officials, as we have done throughout this crisis.”

England's choice of direction comes after the other home nations roundly rejected the idea of re-opening schools from June 1.

In Scotland, first minister Nicola Sturgeon has rejected the June 1 date and said that a phased re-opening before the summer holidays, which in Scotland begins in June, “might not be possible”.

In Northern Ireland, the partial re-opening of schools has been included as part of step 3 of a five-step plan unveiled on Tuesday (May 12). The Northern Ireland Executive has not set out a timetable, but first minister Arlene Foster said she hoped to reach the final stage by December and progression would depend on health-related criteria.

For schools, it states under step 3: “Schools expand provision for priority groups on a part-time basis, using a combination of in-school and remote learning.” And under step 4, it adds: “Schools expand provision to accommodate all pupils on part-time basis with combination of in-school and remote learning.”

In Wales, it has been confirmed that schools will not re-open from June 1. Education minister Kirsty Williams said: “The situation for schools in Wales will not change on June 1. You have my guarantee that we will give everyone time to plan ahead of a next phase starting. Any decision to increase the operation of schools will be communicated well in advance. We will continue to be guided by the very latest scientific advice and will only look to have more pupils and staff in schools when it is safe to do so.”

Further information

  • Cabinet Office: Our plan to rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy, May 11, 2020: https://bit.ly/2zvNHH0
  • 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
  • Northern Ireland Executive: Executive approach to decision-making, May 12: https://bit.ly/35TIDIM
  • Scottish Government: Coronavirus (COVID-19): framework for decision making - further information, May 5, 2020: https://bit.ly/2SWLw6k
  • Welsh Government: Leading Wales out of the coronavirus pandemic: A framework for recovery, April 24, 2020: https://bit.ly/2WsxsUd


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