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Schools row: Warning that it is ‘impossible to sustain social distancing amongst children’

As the government insists that it is time for some pupils to return to class, union leaders warn that staff need more safety guarantees

22 May, 2020 — By Helen Chapman

UNIONS are demanding answers as to how schools can make teaching safe as the government faces a coronavirus rebellion over plans to get pupils returning to class in less than a fortnight.

All of Camden’s schools have been drawing up a risk assessment of their sites to see how they could operate under social distancing rules after Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet colleagues called for a phased return to begin on June 1.

Proposals are being formulated but some teachers and governors at primary schools are understood to be ready to have frank conversations about the prospect of keeping younger and carefree children away from each other at all times.

The first year groups due back are Year 1 and Year 6. Some councils elsewhere in the United Kingdom have threatened to ignore the demand, but Camden said it was trusting schools to make the right decisions over what was possible.

It said this week that it was in close discussions with teaching staff and union representatives but organisers at both Unison and the National Education Union have urged caution.

Hugo Pierre, from Camden Unison, said: “The plan the government has is completely mad. I think our members were particularly concerned about early years children who can’t socially distance – the equipment they use in class is soft play, bricks, shared stuff and none of that has been considered by the government.”

Hugo Pierre from Camden Unison

He added: “Our members think there is no other reason than economic reasons for schools to open and most of us are taking a position that they are opposed to it.”

While staff are concerned about pupils losing ground while working at home, the New Journal reported last month how teachers and school staff held concerns about rushing back too quickly and the risk of the coronavirus spreading again.

While Labour frontbenchers at Westminster have called for more scientific advice to be published, Conservative cabinet member Michael Gove, the former education secretary, said: “You can never eliminate risk, but it is the case that it is extremely unlikely that any school is likely to be the source of a Covid outbreak.”

During the lockdown, Camden’s schools have stayed open for vulnerable children or those with key worker parents.

Mr Pierre said: “We just think the plans at the moment are unsafe – mainly because testing, tracking and tracing of the virus needs to be in place for schools to open, and it is not in place. They don’t know it is going to be in place by June 1. This government is expecting school staff to take all the risks of this.”

He added: “I think our members will all want to know that PPE (personal protective equipment) is there for them if they need it. We know there have been shortages nationally and so we would want to make sure that the schools have sufficient supply for them if they need it.”

Parents will not be fined if they do not send their children to school and secondary schools are likely to stay closed until September apart from those pupils in Years 10 and 12 who are sitting exams next year. This has sparked a separate debate at the Town Hall over whether live internet lessons should be introduced for older children; a suggestion opposed by the NEU.

The CNJ reporting on the issue last month

On the issue of re-opening schools, Gerald Clark from Camden NEU said: “I think a lot of schools that are planning a wider reopening are not planning it on June 1 which I think is sensible because Boris Johnson has only said there will be a review of the [lockdown] restrictions on May 28. I think it is sensible for schools to push that back slightly to make sure the government are acting on that.”

The New Journal called several schools but was told – politely – that headteachers could not comment to the press on their plans.

Proposals are different at every school depending on the lay-out of their buildings, but many are looking at one way systems to move through the school.

Several primaries, however, have been canvassing parents to find out whether they intend to send their children to school when the gates re-open. In an update for parents,

Eleanor Palmer School in Tufnell Park said it was looking at separate playtimes, consistent and rigorous hand-washing and lots of outdoor learning. But the school added: “It feels important to be totally transparent that, with the best intent, it is impossible to sustain social distancing amongst children.”

At Brookfield School in Highgate, a bulletin to parents quoted the Department for Education’s own briefing from last week that said: “We know that, unlike older children and adults, early years and primary age children cannot be expected to remain two metres apart from each other and staff.” It is one of many schools organising “bubble” classes of 15 children who will “learn, play and eat together and do not mix with other classes”.

Camden’s education chief Labour councillor Angela Mason said: “Every school has been asked to complete a detailed risk assessment to help them with preparations, which will give both schools and us a clear idea of the risks and where further support is needed.”

Camden’s schools chief Labour councillor Angela Mason

She added: “We know that our headteachers and governing bodies know their individual schools best. We will stand by our schools and the ultimate decisions they make to manage a gradual return to school for children, which will be based on what is best for children and on public health evidence and advice. It is also a decision for parents, and our schools are best placed to have discussions with parents who might have concerns about their children returning, including the impact on vulnerable or shielding people at home.”

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “There are some who would like to delay the wider opening of schools but there is a consequence to this. “The longer that schools are closed the more children miss out. Teachers know that there are children out there that have not spoken or played with another child of their own age for two months.”

He added: “They know there are children from difficult or very unhappy homes for whom school is the happiest moment in their week and it’s also the safest place for them to be.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Plans for a cautious, phased return are based on the best scientific and medical advice. The welfare of children and staff has been at the heart of all decision making.”

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