Are schools ready to open or are children being used as guinea pigs? Two sides of the debate

Plans to start gradually reopening schools have proved controversial, with unions challenging the government over its target for some classes tor return on 1 June.

Schools have been told to prepare for early year settings, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to return to the classroom in smaller sizes from the start of next month, and to start reintroducing more face-to-face lessons for Year 10 and Year 12 students.

All primary school students would also be back in school for a month before summer under the government’s goal – advice one headteachers union has told its members to ignore as it is not “realistic”.

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The Independent spoke to Steve Chalke, the founder of the Oasis trust – an academy trust with around 50 schools in England – and Alex Rawlings, the headteacher of Quarry Bank Primary School in the West Midlands, about their differing views on plans to get children back to school as the country faces the coronavirus pandemic.

1. Are you planning on reopening your school(s) on 1 June? Do you support these plans?

Steve Chalke: “Yes. But it is an important thing to say that some won’t be reopening at all, because they never shut. I think that has been lost in this conversation. Many of our schools have stayed open throughout to care for and work with the children of key workers and those who are most vulnerable. What we will be doing on 1 June in scaling up what we are doing a little bit.

“Our plan at one school is different for the plans for each of the other schools. We have 35 primaries. The reason they are different is because we have 35 different buildings. Some are bigger, some are smaller, some have wider corridors, some have narrower corridors, and they have different size classrooms, for example.

“We are supportive of the government plans to open schools on June 1 because we are ready. Oasis is having a conversation in each locality with its school leaders, its parents, its community. We are talking with the unions and the government and that is why we are going to open on 1 June.”

Alex Rawlings: “We are planning on a phased return of school on 2 June. We will be using 1 June to prepare the classrooms and school site. Our children in Early Years will start on 2 June followed by our Year 1 and Year 6 children on 8 June. We will remain open for our key worker and vulnerable children.

“I wholeheartedly support the return to school for children, but only when we know it is safe.

“The government has not done enough to convince a lot of parents nor school leaders that it is safe to return.”

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2. What are you planning to help your school reopen to students?

Steve Chalke: “In some of our schools, we are doing a rota. Instead of having children in all day, we are having a cohort in the morning, and a different cohort in in the afternoon … There is a gap when we can cleanse everything, clean it down, wipe everything.

“Some schools will have fewer children in a classroom than others. The government has said you can have up to 15 in a classroom. Depending on the sizes of our classrooms, we are deciding how many children can go in them.

“We have ordered and have got PPE equipment … Any staff member or any child that wants PPE, it is there for them.

“The way Oasis is geared up is there is a central team that supports all our schools. Some of this work, like ordering of PPE, has been done centrally so we can make sure all our schools have got that. We prepared a whole list of questions for our schools to ask themselves as they get ready.

“We have done a full risk assessment of each individual schools, so we have had a meeting for all 35 schools … and we worked out the bespoke plan for each of the schools in that meeting.”

Alex Rawlings: “I’m currently putting together plans to return as safely as we can. Some of those plans include additional hand washing stations, spacing of tables and chairs in classrooms, purchasing lidded bins so that waste can be disposed of according to the governments guidance, and buying coloured wristbands so groups of children can identify themselves from other groups and keep their distance.

“It is however incredibly hard to plan for the reopening of school when the guidance changes on a daily basis. Boris Johnson originally said only Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 children were to return, then the guidance made reference to nursery and even now government officials neglect to mention nursery children returning also.

“Schools had invested significant resources to planning a return that made sense to them and their communities. The government also released a document on Friday night explaining that schools should avoid using rota systems to accommodate children. Hundreds of schools would have been back to square one of planning, with only two weeks, including half-term, until schools are expected to open to those year groups.”

3. What are the main difficulties schools face with regards to opening during coronavirus?

Steve Chalke: “You should never do anything you haven’t thought about and carefully planned for. To open without doing the planning we have been able to do is a risk too far.

“But then there is another answer. In the end, it isn’t PPE and it isn’t actively planning and risk assessment forms that get you there: it is trust.

“The real foundation on which phased return to any school is built is trust. By that I mean, trust between school staff and leaders, and trust between parents and the school. If you have got all that trust going on and good communication, that is the final ingredient you need to open school. If you don’t have trust and a good relationship, it will be really hard because scaremongering breaks out and rumours start flying.”

Alex Rawlings: “Inconsistent guidance from government which causes a lack of confidence in reopening and the logistics of following the guidance are hugely limiting.

“Gavin Williamson said we were having a tentative start of reopening schools, when actually he has insisted that four out of eight year groups attend school. Those classes are halved, which requires double the space and double the supervision, which means that schools have to be at 100 per cent staffing capacity to safely open. With lots of adults shielding or self-isolating, schools do not have the staffing capacity to reopen – we will only just be able to, hopefully.

“The most difficult aspect to sort is to try to increase parental confidence in school’s ability to keep everyone safe. Everyone knows it is going to be impossible to keep 3 and 4 year olds apart at a distance of two metres. In every workplace in the country you are to socially distance unless you have adequate PPE. Schools have been told that social distancing isn’t attainable whilst working with children and that it isn’t recommended that schools use PPE routinely.

“Adults will never have confidence in government plans to reopen until they can tell everyone what makes a school classroom uniquely safe when compared to any other workspace in the entire United Kingdom.”

4. What are the benefits of getting children back in the classroom, as opposed to home learning?

Steve Chalke: “I think they are huge. A report done for the Institute of Fiscal Studies has shown a massive gap between the rich and the poor in the amount of homework study being done. It said the more middle class you are or wealthy you are, the more digital access you have, more laptops and and the more time parents have got to spend with you … But it is much worse than what they are saying.

They are saying across this period, wealthy children will have done seven days more work by the end of this than others. I think this is woefully underestimated. All our schools are in poor communities, some of our kids haven’t been receiving dinners as government system has failed all together.

“Why do we need to get these schools open? For learning to continue. Around four million children in England live in poverty. The children commissioners office say two million live in homes where there is domestic abuse, where there is parental substance misuse or parental mental health issues. All of those figures come before lockdown. How do you think those figures have gone up? The longer these children wait for a return to school, the greater the negative impact on their learning, their health and on their safety.”

Alex Rawlings: “The benefits to getting children back are clear – children will receive improved education provision and they will see their friends, which is really important.

“Parents have worked incredibly hard with their children at home but it is very difficult to turn a dining room in to a classroom and it is obviously not as successful as being in a classroom environment.”

5. What are your concerns (if any) about the plans to reopen on 1 June?

Steve Chalke: “Where the type of things we have been talking about haven’t been done, I would be very wary of opening a school. But I think there are still two weeks to go.

“My advice is to a school that is on its own, that don’t feel they have got the support they need, I think I would really happy to provide people with an understanding of the kind of approach we have adopted.”

Alex Rawlings: “Children are being used as guinea pigs.

“The government are trying to push a narrative that if you care for children then you will promote the reopening of schools. Every member of our school staff cares deeply for the children in their care and want nothing more for them to return, but only when it is safe to do so.

“There has not been enough time, clear guidance or scientific evidence to suggest that it is the right time to do so.

“Everyone keeps referring to the Danish model and how that has worked. It is a ridiculous comparison. Denmark’s deaths are in the hundreds, ours are in the tens of thousands. Denmark were one of the first countries to close its schools (we were one of the last) and they returned when only a few hundred people were in intensive care being treated for coronavirus, we have thousands.”

6. Do you feel the science is clear enough to show schools are safe to reopen on 1 June?

Steve Chalke: “Yes. I think the problem is the unions and all the people commentating on this aren’t the scientists. So what we have tried to do throughout the whole process has really talk to people who are in the middle of the science. I heard Brian Cox say – and I agree with this totally – anyone who tell you they are following the science doesn’t understand science. Science is a debate.”

Alex Rawlings: “On Friday night, the government released the science that was supposed to convince schools that it was safe to open. This document contains no science, just a regurgitation of their own guidance.

“The science hasn’t been adequately shared despite it being promised. The Department for Education’s own scientific advisor conceded to having not read the guidance and had not been consulted about reopening of schools during an Ed Select Committee meeting, only for the Department for Education to release a statement later saying that he knew.”

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