Sunday, 10 May 2020

Brent governors should support the teaching unions' demands before any return to school

National press looking forward to Monday
This article is my personal view but based on my experience as a governor and former headteacher and teacher.

While the national press was trumpeting an end to lockdown last week I received notice of a meeting scheduled for Tuesday afternoon for Chairs of Governors with the Brent Strategic Director of Children and Young People 'to discuss the anticipated government announcement about the phased reopening of schools in the second half of this term.'

Following the unprecedented joint  statement by 10 teacher unions setting out conditions for re-opening I hope that phased re-opening will be delayed or extremely limited. LINK

This is because as governors we have a duty of care to our staff and must ensure that their workplace is safe. The lack of clarity from government ministers and press speculation over re-opening has taken its toll on headteachers faced with seemingly impossible demands that at the extreme may mean life or death decisions. LINK  They have to weigh up the damage to children of not attending school, including those without access to on-line learning, help from parents, space to study or access to a garden and the responsibility to ensure that their school does not become a hot spot of infection.

The NEU has sought evidence based justification for government decision making which as yet has not been answered: (Click bottom right square for full page view)

 I believe that governors should support the 5 tests put forward by the NEU that need to be met before any return to school:

Our five tests

We want to begin to reopen schools and colleges as soon as we can. But this needs to be safe for society, for children and their families and the staff who work in them.
We have these five tests which the Government should show will be met by reliable evidence, peer-reviewed science and transparent decision-making.

Test 1 : Much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases

The new case count must be much lower than it is now, with a sustained downward trend and confidence that new cases are known and counted promptly. And the Government must have extensive arrangements for testing and contact tracing to keep it that way.

Test 2 : A national plan for social distancing

The Government must have a national plan including parameters for both appropriate physical distancing and levels of social mixing in schools, as well as for appropriate PPE, which will be locally negotiated at school-by-school and local authority level.

Test 3 : Testing, testing, testing!

Comprehensive access to regular testing for children and staff to ensure our schools and colleges don’t become hot spots for Covid-19.

Test 4 : Whole school strategy

Protocols to be put in place to test a whole school or college when a case occurs and for isolation to be strictly followed.

Test 5 : Protection for the vulnerable

Vulnerable staff, and staff who live with vulnerable people, must work from home, fulfilling their professional duties to the extent that is possible. Plans must be specifically address the protection of vulnerable parents, grandparents and carers.
Plans in Brent need to take account of the local context where cases and deaths are running at one of the highest levels in London (precise figures change daily) and where the ONS (Office of National Statistics) locality statistics reveal hot spots within the borough. LINK

Latest figures are that nationally Brent is the second highest are in the country with 141.5 per 100,000 population. Second only to Newhan at 144.3.  The total number of cases in Brent (with the caveat that because of lack of testing there are probably many more) is 1405 and 52% of all recorded deaths were Covid related.

The ONS also report on the comparative incidence of death from Coronavirus in different ethnic groups. This anaylsis is quite old now and the latest suggestion is that the risk has worsened if anything:

This means that in any phased return to full school opening governing bodies should be aware that their BAME  (Black and Minority Ethnic) staff and BAME parents are at additional risk and need to take account also of the statistics within their local community.

As with the NHS this governors need to ensure that staff have access to Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).  So far, and rightly, the NHS and Care Homes have been priortised by the local authority but PPE will need to be provided to schools if they re-open.  So far schools have only received gloves and the argument has been made that masks would frighten young children. In fact with the increasing use of masks and the likely introduction of a requirement to use them on public transport, children will soon be used to them.

Although there are BAME staff at every level in our schools the numbers are higher amongst support and premises staff.  They are more likely to live within the borough and thus exposed to infection locally.  If they live a distance away from the school they are more likely as low paid workers to use public transport rather than own a car. Travelling on public transport during rush hour is also likely to expose them to infection. Should we be considering changing hours to avoid peak travel periods.

Another consideration is if children return how will schools handle the transition. Many children without access to a garden will be suffering from the side effects of lockdown and separation from their peers. and perhaps from tensions in the home caused by isolation in the family unit. Despite the best efforts of school staff to provide learning packs and on-line  education, some will lag behind more fortunate peers.  The children's mental health will be paramount and schools may well decide that a return to  formal curriculum will have to be gradual with plenty of time for outdoor learning and creative activities in the first weeks of return.

Practical considerations will be paramount.  How to organise classrooms and pupil numbers so that social distancing can be maintained in the playground as well as the classroom.  Many classrooms are small so may comfortably accommodate only 8-10 children at social distancing of 2 metres. If a Year 6 class is split into 3 or 4 classes each will require a space and staff - how practical is that?  If priority is given to children  without access to on-line resources teaches will be dealing with both the physical and virtual classroom and the interactions involved. Workload is a consideration.

There has been discussion about a phased return perhaps prioritising Years 5 and 6 and othjers returning later as well as suggestions of one week on, one week off shifts or 8.30 to 11.30, 12.30-3.30 sessions.

It will be important for schools to share what has worked for them during the partial closure when they were dealing with key worker and vulnerable children.

Governing boards will have much to discuss and plans and risk assessments to complete before any return to school. 

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