Schools across the UK are preparing to reopen their doors to all pupils in September, following their closure for five months due to the Covid-19 lockdown. The decision to reopen schools hasn’t been taken lightly. The government has struggled to get the balance right between providing a good education and minimising the risks of the virus.
All state and private schools, colleges, universities and nurseries were closed indefinitely on 18th March, affecting around eight million UK students. Although a small number of pupils, including the children of NHS staff and essential workers, were permitted to go into school during the lockdown, the vast majority were home-educated.
Now, following an announcement by the Department of Education on 7th August, young people of all ages are preparing to return to the classroom for the autumn term. Classrooms are being adapted to offer an education, as well as safety and protection for all the staff and pupils.
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How will schools prepare?
Schools are carrying out risk assessments at present in readiness for their reopening. The aim is to put safety measures in place, so they can operate again at full capacity, without taking any risks with people’s health.
Essential measures include making sure pupils who feel ill stay at home. Staff and students must carry out “robust” hand-washing and obey other hygiene measures, such as catching sneezes in tissues and binning them immediately. Schools must carry out deeper cleaning and will engage with the NHS Test and Trace scheme.
Education chiefs have stressed there is no “one size fits all” solution. They are urging staff to consider their school’s individual circumstances, so they can devise a plan where contact between different classes or “bubbles” of pupils is avoided as much as possible.
Will schools practice social distancing?
The classrooms will look very different: seating arrangements will be quite rigid, with forward-facing desks in all the classrooms, at an appropriate distance from each other, to maintain social distancing where “reasonably practicable”.
Desks can no longer be arranged in different layouts, such as a semi-circle, where students face each other, while the teaching staff must remain at a safe distance from the students and from colleagues.
Avoiding bottle-necks in corridors is paramount and schools and colleges need to ensure the smooth flow of large numbers of students throughout the premises.
How will they cope in busy areas?
One suggestion is to install automatic doors to enable pupils and staff to walk through the building without overcrowding at entrances and exits and without touching door handles.
Automatic doors can help make entrances and shared areas such as corridors, classrooms, toilets, common rooms, libraries and staffrooms contact-free and as safe as possible, minimising the spread of germs that might otherwise be spread through touching door handles and switches.
The government guidelines recommend that teaching aids, stationery and other educational equipment should not be used by too many people. Frequently used personal items, such as pens and pencils, shouldn’t be shared at all and other items like books can be used by pupils in a group or “bubble”, but must be wiped clean frequently. Any resources that are shared beyond these “bubbles”, such as sports equipment and items in the science lab, should be deep-cleaned in between different classes using it.
Will pupils and staff wear face-masks?
While schools are advised that everyone should abide by social distancing as much as possible, it won’t be compulsory to wear face-masks at the start of term. However, the situation is continually under review and things may change if health chiefs believe it becomes necessary.
Children aged over 11 must wear face masks on public transport, like all adults do, but they don’t have to wear them in school. The guidelines explain this is because students meet the same people in the classroom every day, so it doesn’t pose as high a risk as public transport, where passengers are likely to come into contact with many different people.
Will the curriculum change?
In terms of the curriculum, teaching staff are advised to teach an “ambitious and broad curriculum” in subjects across the board, while aiming to cover the most relevant missed content. This might mean that Year 7 pupils will have to re-learn parts of the maths and English syllabus from their final year at primary school.
The aim is that by summer 2021, schools will have caught up, so they can return to teaching their normal curriculum. Pupils will be questioned regularly to make sure they have a full grasp of the curriculum, despite the disruption.