Schools in England have been given few restrictions on how they will be able to operate when pupils return in autumn, according to government guidelines, but the welter of recommendations and advice has led headteachers to complain of “mind-boggling” practical difficulties.
The guidance published by the Department for Education imposes only a handful of demands, principally that primary and secondary schools divide pupils into “bubbles” of entire classes or year groups, which in larger secondary schools will include hundreds of children.
But few social distancing measures will be required within schools, with much of the advice left to school leaders to interpret, including recommendations about staggering school start and finish times, break times within school hours, and hygiene routines.
GCSE and A-level exams in all subjects to be available in autumn
Children and staff will not be required to wear face masks in schools but children over the age of 11 travelling on public transport will need to wear a mask or face covering and maintain social distancing.
Teachers are told “to distance from each other and older students where possible” but are allowed to move freely between classes and year groups. Staff will be expected to return to their school’s site for work, because “the risks to all staff will be mitigated significantly” by the new guidance. Staff classed as extremely clinically vulnerable can also return if they maintain social distancing.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It will be immediately apparent to anyone reading this guidance that it is enormously challenging to implement. The logistics of keeping apart many different ‘bubbles’ of children in a full school, including whole-year groups comprising hundreds of pupils, is mind-boggling.”
From 20 July, restrictions on group sizes for nurseries, childminders and other early years providers will also be lifted.
In a separate announcement, Ofqual, the exam regulator for England, said it would consider delaying the start of next year’s GCSE exams until after 7 June to allow more time for pupils to catch up.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said: “I want to reassure parents and families that we are doing everything we can to make sure schools, nurseries, colleges and other providers are as safe as possible for children and staff, and will continue to work closely with the country’s best scientific and medical experts to ensure that is the case.”
Mobile testing units may be sent to administer tests to entire schools in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak, according to the DfE’s guidance.
“Where there are two or more confirmed cases in a two-week period, [Public Health England’s] health protection teams may ask a larger number of other children or young people to self-isolate at home as a precautionary measure,” the guidance states.
“Where an outbreak in a school is confirmed, for specific detailed investigations a mobile testing unit may be dispatched to test others who may have been in contact with the person who has tested positive. Testing will first focus on the person’s class, followed by their year group, then the whole school if necessary.”
The guidance also says schools will be expected to “secure full attendance from the start of the new academic year”, with the reintroduction of mandatory attendance requirements for pupils and the possibility of fines for parents imposed by local authorities.
Inspectors from Ofsted will resume visiting schools in the autumn term, “to discuss how they are supporting the return to education for their pupils”, according to the DfE. Formal Ofsted inspections are to restart in January 2021.
Schools will also be required to have plans in place for remote teaching in the event of some pupils self-isolating or a wider school closure.
Teaching union leaders urged the government to have a “national plan B” in place for England in the event of further outbreaks jeopardising the full reopening in September.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “The situation seen in Leicester this week has demonstrated that this crisis is far from over, and there will be further disruption ahead. It is therefore essential that government continues to monitor the data when it comes to school return and that it also has a credible plan B in place should it be required.”
Much of the guidance repeats the rules in place for schools that have remained open for selected pupils, including keeping movement around the school to a minimum and avoiding busy corridors. School assemblies are to be restricted to single bubbles of pupils, while school choirs are banned.
The government continues to struggle with the reliance on public transport for many pupils to travel to school – and the guidance hints that more extreme measures may be needed similar to those used in London during the 2012 Olympics.
The guidance bluntly states the use of public transport by pupils “should be kept to an absolute minimum”. But it then says: “To facilitate the return of all pupils to school, it will be necessary to take steps to both depress the demand for public transport and to increase capacity within the system.”
The Department for Transport is asking local authorities to survey parents on school routes, and to “consider using traffic demand management” and “a range of options for shifting demand for public transport onto other modes” from the start of the autumn term.
“Experience during the 2012 London Olympics showed that it is possible to make a very real difference to travel patterns where there is a concerted effort to do so and where the general public understand the imperative for doing so,” the guidance states.
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