We’ll meet again.
And we do know where: virtually.
And we do know when: during this final half-term of the school year.
Today the national COVID alert fell from 4 to 3: let’s hope against hope that this downward trend continues and by September schools in England can welcome back all their pupils. I can’t imagine there’s a person in the land who doesn’t want that to happen. However, it is rather more complicated to actually make that happen.
At present the government’s own guidance prohibits further opening from happening: primary schools are limited to ‘bubbles’ of 15 and secondary schools must abide by social distancing of two metres. These rules are both for very good reasons. We know there is a review underway, and today’s good news may mean the virus is receding at the pace that will allow the Department for Education’s (DfE) guidance for schools to change between now and September. But planning needs to begin now.
There is much for governing boards to discuss with their senior leaders this term before the summer holidays begin. Many school leaders are exhausted having had to re-design schools with the help of their staff, first for the children of key workers and vulnerable children, and then for further partial opening, while at the same time providing a remote offer: reflecting, reading guidance, assessing risk, planning, consulting, reading updated guidance reassessing, re-planning and communicating has been relentless during COVID-19 (I could go on but you get the point). Governing boards have only been involved in part of those discussions, and many have felt the strain of their legal responsibilities but even more so their ethical responsibilities on balancing the risks for families in their communities.
When the transmission of this virus accelerated in March, many of us thought it would all be normal by September, but does anyone think that now? Today’s news is helpful, but the risk from COVID-19 will not have totally disappeared by then; it was made abundantly clear by the government medical and scientific advisers in the meeting the DfE organised with school representative organisations last month that this is going to be with us in the UK for a long time. As I concluded my last blog, we need to learn to live with a certain amount of risk, while minimising it as much as we possibly can, and balancing it with other risks affecting pupils, families and staff.
Pupils have lost out on teaching, but also may have been affected in all sorts of other ways by the pandemic and the lockdown. Schools will need to assess all of this, and that can begin this side of the summer holiday, so the provision needed for pupils from September can be amended and developed. We are especially concerned about the pupils from poorer families and those without digital devices or connections who will have fallen behind. Today’s announcement of the catch-up funding for pupils is extremely welcome.
So much more assessing and planning is required for September. Although in the media there are calls for a national plan for full school reopening, if we wait for something from on high, I worry that this term will have ended before it appears. Furthermore a national plan may not fit every school and community precisely. There is a tension as to what should be decided nationally, and what locally; NGA has always argued that schools and their governing boards understand their situation best. Let’s hope not, but it may be that local outbreaks of COVID-19 may require action at schools or district level. Even waiting for further guidance before beginning to plan may mean time runs out.
So instead school leaders will need to be planning for different options for September, such as :
- No change in the current size of bubbles and social distancing
- Reducing social distance requirement to 1.5 m or 1m
- Return to full class sizes and mixing allowed, although with the other protective measures such as handwashing, cleaning and removal with symptoms continuing
They will as before need of course to consult staff and unions, and a governing board meeting will need to be held to test the assumptions. This should mean by the end of term, school leaders can give parents an idea of the options which may prevail in September, dependent on the trajectory of COVID-19 infections and DfE guidance, itself based on the scientific and medical situation. At the end of August, school leaders will discover what the public health situation is and will know which option to implement.
Most of these options will not allow all pupils to return to school buildings full-time, and the DfE will need to drop its resistance to rotas to allow all pupils to return even part-time. It is likely therefore that on-line learning at home remains for most pupils for part of the time. This combination of school attendance and remote learning is known as ‘blended learning’ (a method NGA has used for our Leading Governance development programmes for a number of years) – apologies for the jargon, but a phrase which will become second nature to us all during the coming academic year.
School leaders, teachers and other staff must be congratulated on the huge changes that they have had to implement at speed. While I am not advocating this method of change, there has been a lot from which we can learn, such as that provision of remote learning, the way schools have worked with families and much more that I will come back to in part two of this blog. I wish school leaders all the best with this scenario planning in the meantime and please do continue to contact us with your queries.
NGA continues to produce up-to-date COVID-19 specific guidance in our knowledge centre, including FAQs. Today, we updated our guidance on business continuity. NGA also continues to offer our GOLDline advice service to all governing boards on specific queries relating to coronavirus. To contact the GOLDline, please email email@example.com or call 0121 237 3782.