Teachers in West Sussex have called on the government to be absolutely clear about how staff and children would be kept safe when schools re-open.
And, as the Prime Minister announced some primary schools could partially open as early as June, there were pleas not to use the profession as ‘guinea pigs’.
Michael Ferry, head of St Wilfrid’s School, in Crawley, said:
“Let’s be clear, you cannot social distance in schools.
“We have some of the highest student density of population in some of the smallest school buildings across the whole of Europe.”
Each week during the lockdown, St Wilfrid’s has had an average of seven children on site whose parents are key workers.
While staff do all they can to make sure social distancing is observed, youngsters are youngsters and have a tendency to gravitate towards each other unless reminded otherwise.
Mr Ferry said:
“If it’s like that with seven students, how can we do it with 150 in each year group?”
Imploring the government not to use teachers as ‘guinea pigs’ by re-opening schools too soon, he added:
“One life saved is worth the wait.”
Alex Bird, head of St Mary’s CE Primary, in Horsham, was one of the teachers to ask for clear information from the government.
“Hopefully, the next couple of weeks will see the government and local government ensure that preparations are completed to ensure the safety of all.
“But, we need to be clear what safeguards there will be for children and adults alike.”
It was a view shared by Jules White, head of Tanbridge House School.
Mr White said:
“There is considerable concern about how relaxation of lockdown can be managed safely to inspire confidence in staff, parents and most importantly pupils.
“Before we can take any steps the government must provide unequivocal directions to headteachers on issues such as social distancing, testing and the use of PPE.”
In an address to the nation on Sunday evening, the Prime Minister said primary schools in England might start to reopen from June 1 at the earliest, while secondary schools were likely to stay closed until September.
It was a plan the National Education Union (NEU) described as ‘nothing short of reckless’.
Anne Barker, of NEU West Sussex, said teachers ‘overwhelmingly’ wanted to return to work but were ‘very aware of their duty of care’ to the children and the community as a whole.
“At the moment schools are not ready for a safe reopening with no clear direction from the government as to how to move forward.”
The Prime Minister’s address left Mr Bird with a string of questions, such as: how to impose social distancing on small children who may not understand the need, and deciding how many children from each year – and which children – would actually return to school.
He asked if there would be financial help to provide cover for staff who couldn’t return to school; and what the priorities would be for teachers – returning to the curriculum or re-establishing social skills and dealing with problems such as mental health issues?
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of National Association of Headteachers, said that without explaining why or how the return to school was considered to be safe, the Prime Minister’s announcement would not pass the ‘confidence test’, with parents or school leaders.
“The government will need to show some understanding rather than reckless determination if it wants to pass the confidence test.
“It will all be in vain if many parents still decide to keep their children at home despite the ‘all clear’ from the government.
“School leaders do not want to see classrooms empty for a day longer than they need to be.
“But there is not a school leader in the land who wants to risk admitting more pupils unless it is perfectly clear that it is safe.”
Many parents have already made their concerns clear.
More than 400,000 have signed a change.org petition calling for the right to choose whether or not they send their children back to school.
One mother said:
“I think it is very unfair to put our children at risk. What are they – guinea pigs?”
“Kids in primary school can’t follow social distancing very well and could be potential carriers and a threat to households with vulnerable people.”
Pan Panayiotou, head of Worthing High, said it would have been ‘prudent’ for the government to consult with headteachers over the plans.
“We can open but only if it’s safe to do so. By safe, we need to have assurances from government and Public Health England that it’s not only safe for our students but also our members of staff.”
Whatever their feelings about the way the government has handled the potential reopening of schools, the heads paid tribute to the work carried out by teachers, parents and children during the lockdown.
Mr Panayiotou said:
“What we’ve found throughout this process is that delivering work in a virtual world only works up to a certain point.
“The reality is that parents, who have had to become teachers, literally overnight, have really stepped up and they’ve been superb in actually trying to support what we’re sending out and supporting their children.”
Mr White shared similar sentiments.
“We are proud of how we have supported families and children with online learning and remaining open through every day of the seven-week lock-down for the children of our amazing key workers.”
“The safety and well being of every child and every colleague is a heavy responsibility for headteachers and we must not rush ahead or be hasty in our decision making.”
(By Karen Dunn – Local Democracy Reporter)
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