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Coronavirus: What to expect from a return to school

School life is likely to be very different when some - if not all - of our pupils return in September.

Staggered start and finish times, secondary pupils staying in specific classrooms while teachers move around the school, and differing break times per class, are likely to be just a few of the changes that schools could face.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is desperate for a return, both for the good of the pupils but also as another step towards getting the parents back into work and boosting the economy. On Sunday, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said  that attending school presents a lesser risk for children than staying at home.

But there are likely to be large numbers of pupils who will still not return having not have set foot in a classroom since March. Parents might be concerned about safely sending their child back, particularly if the youngster is anxious or has a health condition, or indeed if anyone else in their house does.

Next week Peterborough teachers will be returning to a week of training around Covid-19, tailored to their individual schools. Each building and classroom will present different challenges, and teachers will need to be adaptable.

Peterborough Matters spoke to Peterborough District/Branch Secretary for the National Education Union (NEU) Graham Bowes, who said the union is happy for pupils to return, as long as certain conditions are met.

Mr Bowes said: "The NEU has never said that it does not want schools to open, and the Government has exploited that myth. Children of all ages should be returning to school, but only when it is safe for children and staff. That is the bottom line.  

"It will take at least a term, possibly two or longer, for them to get back to where they had been at. Some research has shown that as many as 40% of parents have said they will not be sending their children to school.

"Education secretary Gavin Williamson has lifted the moratorium on the fining of parents, but we have spoken to (service director for education at Cambridgeshire County Council and Peterborough City Council) Jonathan Lewis and have been reassured that they are not going to pile in and immediately start sending out invoices. Eventually however, schools across the country will have to start grasping the mettle.

"Those parents who don't feel comfortable sending their children will be put in an invidious position.where they put themselves at risk of being fined - some of these parents may not now be in work, of course. The fining was cancelled during lockdown, but now it is under the power of the local authority. However we have been assured that situations will be treated with sensitivity.

"In order to be optimistic you have to consider what's in front of you. The NEU has had no guidance on what would happen in the event of another spike, and how they would deal with that within a bubble or in the whole school.

"Each school would have to work it out themselves - some schools may close, but some may stay open.", studied patterns in countries across the world which had reopened their classrooms, and found that a combination of small student groups and requiring masks and a degree of social distancing helps keep schools and communities safe.It also found that younger children seldom spread the virus to one another or bring it home. 

However, one key element of success lay outside the control of classrooms - the level of virus circulating in the community, which affects the likelihood that students and staff will bring COVID-19 into their schools.

While official guidance rejects the use of face coverings in school, as of today (August 25) there is no government instruction so far about whether masks will be needed in classrooms if they were requested as a safety measure by teachers or pupils' parents or where they might be seen as a "useful additional measure". Meanwhile, the use of face coverings in corridors and communal areas of secondary schools is likely to be introduced in Scotland.

Mr Bowes added: "It's obviously going to be impossible for staff to wear them while teaching, and how mask wearing and social distancing is policed, I don't know. You only have to look at how some of the public are behaving to see how difficult it is."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has led calls for parents to send their children back to England’s schools next month.

As teachers prepare to welcome back all pupils following the coronavirus shutdown, the PA news agency looks at the safety and logistics of schools reopening.

What have the experts said?

The UK’s chief medical officers have warned children are more at risk of long-term harm if they do not attend school than if they return.

In a joint statement, the advisers said children have an “exceptionally low risk of dying” from the disease and “very few, if any” children and teenagers would come to long-term harm from the virus solely by attending school.

 And what is the latest scientific evidence?

A study by Public Health England (PHE), published on Sunday, found there were 67 single confirmed cases, four “co-primary cases” (two or more linked cases) and 30 outbreaks of Covid-19 in schools during June.

It said the majority of cases linked to outbreaks were in staff, transmission between students was “very rare”, and where children did contract the virus, they were more likely to catch it at home, usually from a parent.

Is there a risk to clinically extremely vulnerable pupils or parents?

As the shielding programme for children and adults was paused on August 1, guidance says that pupils in this group can return to school, as can those who have family members who are shielding.

But, if a local area sees a spike of Covid-19, children or family members who live there will be advised to shield while rates remain high, and so may be temporarily absent from school.

What measures are schools putting in place?

The Government has set out a series of measures that all schools must follow, including good respiratory hygiene and enhanced cleaning procedures, such as hand sanitiser stations in classrooms.

More regular hand-washing is advised and staff should ensure that children do so when they arrive at school, return from their break, change rooms and after eating.

Those who have symptoms of Covid-19, or are in a household with someone displaying symptoms, should be kept away from the school.

Are students and staff required to wear face coverings in school?

Based on the current evidence, guidance does not recommend the use of face coverings in schools because it says pupils and staff are mixing in consistent groups and misuse may inadvertently increase the risk of transmission.

How different will the school day look for pupils?

Staggering break and lunch times should be looked at and, ensuring that teaching time is maintained, schools should consider staggered start and finish times to keep groups apart as they arrive and leave school.

When timetabling lessons, schools should ensure that different groups, or “bubbles”, are kept apart and movement around the school should be kept to a minimum.

What are school “bubbles” and how will they work?

As a way of minimising contact between students, and so reducing transmission of the disease, guidance recommends keeping groups of children separate in “bubbles”.

Guidance suggests that in secondary schools the bubble is likely to be the size of a year group to enable staff to deliver the full range of curriculum subjects, while smaller group sizes may be implemented with younger children.

Groups should be kept apart where possible, and older pupils should be encouraged to keep their distance from other children and teachers within the same group.

But how will the groups be maintained?

A headteachers’ union has warned that it will be “enormously challenging” for schools to keep children apart in year-group-sized “bubbles”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “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.”

What if someone becomes unwell at school?

If a pupil or a member of staff has symptoms of the virus, they should stay at home and arrange a test. In the case of a positive test, everyone within the school that had been in close contact with the pupil or staff member will be asked to self-isolate.

A school will be said to have an outbreak if there are two or more confirmed cases within 14 days or an overall rise in absence where Covid-19 is suspected.

How will an outbreak be contained?

In some cases, health protection teams may recommend that a large number of pupils self-isolate at home as a precautionary measure, such as a whole year group.

The official guidance says mobile units can be dispatched to schools to test anyone who has been in contact with the child, or member of staff, who has tested positive.

Testing will focus on the person’s class, followed by their year group, then the whole school if necessary, it adds.