Headteachers want safety reassurances before reopening West Sussex schools

Teachers in West Sussex have called on the government to be absolutely clear about how staff and children would be kept safe when schools reopen.

Some schools could start to reopen as soon as the beginning of June (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Some schools could start to reopen as soon as the beginning of June (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

And, as the Prime Minister announced some primary schools could partially open as early as June, there were pleas not to use the profession as ‘guinea pigs’.

Michael Ferry, head of St Wilfrid’s School, in Crawley, said: “Let’s be clear, you cannot social distance in schools.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

“We have some of the highest student density of population in some of the smallest school buildings across the whole of Europe.”

Michael Ferry, head of St Wilfrid’s School, in Crawley

Each week during the lockdown, St Wilfrid’s has had an average of seven children on site whose parents are key workers.

While staff do all they can to make sure social distancing is observed, youngsters are youngsters and have a tendency to gravitate towards each other unless reminded otherwise.

Mr Ferry said: “If it’s like that with seven students, how can we do it with 150 in each year group?”

Imploring the government not to use teachers as ‘guinea pigs’ by re-opening schools too soon, he added: “One life saved is worth the wait.”

Jules White, headteacher of Tanbridge House School

Need for clear information

Alex Bird, head of St Mary’s CE Primary, in Horsham, was one of the teachers to ask for clear information from the government.

He said: “Hopefully, the next couple of weeks will see the government and local government ensure that preparations are completed to ensure the safety of all.

“But, we need to be clear what safeguards there will be for children and adults alike.”

Pan Panayiotou, head of Worthing High

It was a view shared by Jules White, head of Tanbridge House School.

Mr White said: “There is considerable concern about how relaxation of lockdown can be managed safely to inspire confidence in staff, parents and most importantly pupils. 

“Before we can take any steps the government must provide unequivocal directions to headteachers on issues such as social distancing, testing and the use of PPE.” 

In an address to the nation on Sunday evening, the Prime Minister said primary schools in England might start to reopen from June 1 at the earliest, while secondary schools were likely to stay closed until September.

‘Schools are not ready for safe reopening’

It was a plan the National Education Union (NEU) described as ‘nothing short of reckless’.

Anne Barker, of NEU West Sussex, said teachers ‘overwhelmingly’ wanted to return to work but were ‘very aware of their duty of care’ to the children and the community as a whole.

She added: “At the moment schools are not ready for a safe reopening with no clear direction from the government as to how to move forward.”

The Prime Minister’s address left Mr Bird with a string of questions, such as: how to impose social distancing on small children who may not understand the need, and deciding how many children from each year – and which children – would actually return to school.

He asked if there would be financial help to provide cover for staff who couldn’t return to school; and what the priorities would be for teachers – returning to the curriculum or re-establishing social skills and dealing with problems such as mental health issues?

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of National Association of Headteachers, said that without explaining why or how the return to school was considered to be safe, the Prime Minister’s announcement would not pass the ‘confidence test’, with parents or school leaders.

He added: “The government will need to show some understanding rather than reckless determination if it wants to pass the confidence test.

“It will all be in vain if many parents still decide to keep their children at home despite the ‘all clear’ from the government.

“School leaders do not want to see classrooms empty for a day longer than they need to be.

“But there is not a school leader in the land who wants to risk admitting more pupils unless it is perfectly clear that it is safe.”

Many parents have already made their concerns clear.

More than 400,000 have signed a change.org petition calling for the right to choose whether or not they send their children back to school.

One mother said: “I think it is very unfair to put our children at risk. What are they – guinea pigs?”

Another said: “Kids in primary school can’t follow social distancing very well and could be potential carriers and a threat to households with vulnerable people.”

Headteachers should be consulted

Pan Panayiotou, head of Worthing High, said it would have been ‘prudent’ for the government to consult with headteachers over the plans.

He added: “We can open but only if it’s safe to do so. By safe, we need to have assurances from government and Public Health England that it’s not only safe for our students but also our members of staff.”

Whatever their feelings about the way the government has handled the potential reopening of schools, the heads paid tribute to the work carried out by teachers, parents and children during the lockdown.

Mr Panayiotou said: “What we’ve found throughout this process is that delivering work in a virtual world only works up to a certain point.

“The reality is that parents, who have had to become teachers, literally overnight, have really stepped up and they’ve been superb in actually trying to support what we’re sending out and supporting their children.”

Mr White shared similar sentiments.

He said: “We are proud of how we have supported families and children with online learning and remaining open through every day of the seven-week lock-down for the children of our amazing key workers.”

He added: “The safety and well being of every child and every colleague is a heavy responsibility for headteachers and we must not rush ahead or be hasty in our decision making.”

‘Nothing can replace being in the classroom’

The Government says that by June 1 at the earliest primary schools in England may be able to welcome back children in key transition years – nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.

Secondary schools, sixth forms and colleges will also work towards the possibility of providing some face-to-face contact with young people in Year 10 and Year 12 to help them prepare for exams next year.

Progress will be monitored every day and only if the virus stays of a downward slope will the Government move to reopen schools.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “I know how hard schools, colleges, early years settings and parents are working to make sure children and young people can continue to learn at home, and I cannot thank them enough for that.

“But nothing can replace being in the classroom, which is why I want to get children back to school as soon as it is safe to do so. The latest scientific advice indicates it will be safe for more children to return to school from 1 June, but we will continue to limit the overall numbers in school and introduce protective measures to prevent transmission.

“This marks the first step towards having all young people back where they belong – in nurseries, schools and colleges – but we will continue to be led by the scientific evidence and will only take further steps when the time is right.”

Whilst there will be no penalty for families who do not send their children to school, families will be strongly encouraged to take up these places - unless the child or a family member is shielding or the child is particularly vulnerable due to an underlying condition.

All staff are already eligible for testing, and staff in shielding and high-risk groups should remain at home.

From 1 June, all children and young people eligible to return to their settings will have access to testing, if they display symptoms, as will any symptomatic members of their household.

A message from the Editor, Gary Shipton:

In order for us to continue to provide high quality and trusted local news, I am asking you to please purchase a copy of our newspapers.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our local valued advertisers - and consequently the advertising that we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you helping us to provide you with news and information by buying a copy of our newspapers.

Our journalists are highly trained and our content is independently regulated by IPSO to some of the most rigorous standards in the world. But being your eyes and ears comes at a price. So we need your support more than ever to buy our newspapers during this crisis.

Stay safe, and best wishes.