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Not until it’s safe! Schools wary of rush back to class

Primary head: 'Schools are not designed for children to be that far apart from each other'

02 May, 2020 — By Helen Chapman

SCHOOL teachers and governors want assurances that the government will not rush pupils back to classrooms without safety measures in place. Some had been expecting to carry on teaching remotely for the rest of the academic year, but pressure to ease coronavirus lockdown restrictions has sparked a guessing game over when schools will reopen.

Played out across newspaper headlines and press conference soundbites, teaching staff in Camden’s schools say they now need clarity – and for the government to speak to staff.

Return dates in May and June have been raised, with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson suggesting on Wednesday that the comeback would be phased in across different age groups.

Fiona Millar, chair of governors at William Ellis secondary school, said: “Of course schools will want to reopen, especially for those pupils whose personal circumstances, limited internet or technology for online learning at home, mean they will be doubly disadvantaged.”

But she added: “We also know that it must be safe for the pupils, the staff and their families. Parents will want to have confidence that it is safe for their children to return to school, which may mean realistically this may not happen until September.”

While Camden’s teachers have been credited for trying to keep going through the lockdown with online learning tools, there remains concern that vulnerable children are missing weeks of lessons – and will fall behind. Others have been teaching the children of key workers or those classed as vulnerable at home.

Sam Drake, headteacher at Beckford Primary in West Hampstead, said: “It has been left to schools on how to operate but clear national guidance is what we need right now. I think that we need an expectation of the hand washing, social distancing, whether children are expected to wear masks, and what the spending is on PPE. The difficulties will be play time and lunch time – we would have to have specific guidance around that.”

John Hayes, headteacher at Gospel Oak Primary, said: “Our biggest challenge would be social distancing. Schools are not designed for children to be that far apart from each other. What I want from the government is a discussion with the profession around it – a deep, thorough consultation to understand what difficulties we are facing.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson visits Camden in 2017

The National Education Union remain sceptical about when schools should reopen with an online petition garnering over 200,000 signatures calling for more evidence showing how a return to school would be safe.

Gerald Clark from Camden NEU said: “We obviously feel hugely for children that are out of school. Teachers are very busy planning and delivering lots of plans for children to do but we are aware it cannot replace the teaching that goes on in the classroom.”

He added: “Years 10 and 12 are hit particularly hard as they approach their exams. Year 6 children are anxious to get back into school and see all their friends. But I don’t think schools are going to be open for business as normal this academic year.”

Mr Williamson told a parliamentary committee yesterday (Wednesday): “We recognise that the idea of schools all returning on day one with the full complement of pupils is not realistic or practical. I do expect schools to be opened in a phased manner. I also intend to be giving schools as much notice as possible.”

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