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More questions than answers – the why, who, how and when of school reopening

To be absolutely clear from the outset, this post is not a call for schools to reopen. I completely agree with everyone who says that schools should not open until its safe to do so. It even feels slightly risky talking about schools reopening at this stage, almost as though we’re tempting fate, but the reality is that if at any point we’re going back to fully open, fully functioning schools, we need to understand how this can happen.

School leaders and central teams at White Hills Park Trust have started looking at this in detail so that if and when we have to respond to central directives, we know what’s possible, what’s safe and what’s desirable and we can act accordingly. I’m sharing this model, not because it’s one that I think all schools should adopt or because it’s fully formed and ready to go, but because I think that it’s important that this debate is led by the people who will be responsible for implementing the decisions and accountable for their consequences – school leaders and colleagues working in the classroom.

First and most important thing to decided is Why? What are we trying to achieve by the reopening of schools? It may seem obvious, but if the purpose is primarily to get parents back into work, then our model will reflect this, if it’s to make sure that pupils continue to make progress, it will look different. If it’s to protect vulnerable pupils, it is different again. In our organisation, we’re working to the following objectives, in no particular order of priority:

  • To maintain continuity of learning for all students
  • To support remote learning
  • To support vulnerable students and the children of key workers
  • To support induction / transition
  • To provide a route towards a full re-opening of school

Being clear about the purpose of opening schools will help us to make wise decisions about how we do it. Simply responding to a  government instruction that schools should re-open on a certain date could easily lead to poor decisions.

The second decision is Who? On the assumption that we will not go immediately to a model whereby every pupil turns up at 8.45 on the first Monday of re-opening, we need to consider the best way of bringing all pupils back in to school safely over time.

For most of us, this will be a two, three or four stage model. In a secondary context, do we start with Year 10 and Year 12 on the basis that they will have less time to make up lost ground, or do we consider that they are best placed to access remote learning and focus on Year 7s? Do we use our physical capacity to provide extended induction for Year 6, hereby relieving the pressure on primary colleagues?

In our Trust, Head Teachers and Local Governing Bodies are the key decision makers here. The role of the Trust is to define objectives and then support implementation. One idea from our schools that Head Teachers are considering is attendance for half days only, gradually increasing the number of days over a period of weeks as capacity allows. Another idea is bringing each year group in one day a week (more frequently for Year 10s) so that teachers can have face to face tutorial-style sessions with students to support effective remote learning.

Thirdly, How? This is where we try and understand how the model can be delivered safely, within each school site and each school’s unique context. Safety is the overriding priority, and we also need to have something that is physically deliverable on site. We’re considering the following questions, among others:

  • How can social distancing be maintained?
  • Which areas of the school will be opened?
  • How can we maintain safe and healthy environment? Handwashing / sanitiser, PPE. Screens, circulation routes etc
  • What’s our strategy for site management, cleaning, refuse etc?
  • How will we provide meals safely and efficiently without having a packed school canteen?
  • What staffing restrictions should we expect? A number of staff are shielding / isolating, absence is very likely to be higher than usual. What level of staff testing should we expect?
  • How will we communicate with parents and students so that they know, understand and support our strategy

In other words, we need a detailed risk assessment and strategic plan, formulated on a school by school basis, to make this work.

Finally, and only after the first three questions have been answered is When? When can we safely implement he plan we have drawn up to meet our objectives?

Unfortunately, far too much of the discussion has focussed on the when – this is where we end up with poor decisions and risky situations. We name a date and then try and work out how on earth that can be achieved. We intend to do this the other way round, and I hope and expect that any government instruction will allow us to make these decisions locally, as the people accountable for the safety of students and staff, as well as for the effective delivery of education.

We want students back in school – as long as we know why, who and how, we can make a good decision about when.

The final point to make is that it is becoming clearer that whatever we eventually return to, it will be different from before. Even in a fully vaccinated / herd immunity future, this experience has changed things. The use of technology as a central part of curriculum delivery for example, or the way we support our students anxiety and mental health – these are things that will not disappear. Everybody needs to expect and accept that the schools we return to may look different from the ones we left so precipitously in March.

By Dr Heery

I'm the Executive Principal of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values.

One reply on “More questions than answers – the why, who, how and when of school reopening”

Excellent points clearly explained. If only the government could get this across there might be less pressure to reopen schools quickly.

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