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Schools in England will be urged to deploy Covid-secure “year bubbles” of up to 240 pupils under government plans to get all children safely back in the classroom from September, HuffPost UK has learned.
Whole year groups of secondary school pupils should be separated from each other to offer protection from coronavirus, with staggered start and finish times and measures to keep them apart during breaktimes and lunchtimes, official guidance will state.
The move – which would in bigger schools mean up to eight classes of 30 pupils all kept in the same protective “bubble” – is seen as crucial to allow as full a curriculum as possible with subject teachers allowed to move between classes.
In primary schools, smaller bubbles of 30 pupils will be recommended because it is the norm for individual teachers to teach the full range of subjects to the same group of children.
But even with the new protections, the government will warn schools they may have to focus on core subjects like maths and English to allow catch-up from the lockdown, and a full curriculum may not be available until next summer term.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson is set to announce the full plans to parliament on Thursday, but HuffPost UK has been told the detailed guidance for headteachers will include:
- No in-class social distancing requirement for primary pupils, with secondary pupils advised to stay 1m apart but not at all times
- Teachers advised to keep 2m away from pupils, at the front of the class, and away from colleagues as much as possible as if in a supermarket
- Schools advised against routine temperature tests of pupils as it is “not a reliable method” for identifying coronavirus
- Compulsory engagement with the NHS Test and Trace system, with whole classes or year groups liable to be sent home if a pupil tests positive, but whole school closure not seen as generally necessary
- No face coverings for pupils or teachers, on Public Health England advice, as they “interfere” with teaching and learning
- Children seated facing forwards in same direction and not at circular tables, with pupils wearing normal uniform and washing hands throughout the day
- Teachers advised to spend no more than 15 minutes at any one time closer than 1m to anyone
- Fines of up to £120 for parents whose children fail to attend school. In contrast with the “softly softly” approach taken during full lockdown the message will be “education is not optional”
- “Robust” measures will be taken to engage with families where children had been persistently absent prior to the pandemic or who have not engaged with school regularly during the pandemic.
- Heads told not to put in any staff rota or physical distancing that would require extra space or make it impossible for all pupils to return full-time.
- Contingency plans for some or all of the school being put in local lockdown and any temporary return to “remote” teaching needing to be of a high quality
- Some subjects for some or all pupils may have to be suspended for two terms to allow catch-up on core subjects such as English and maths, with a full spread of subjects returning in the summer term of of 2021
- Some pupils may have to drop some GSCEs altogether in Year 11 to allow them to catch up and achieve better grades in English and maths. GCSEs and A-levels to take place as planned next summer but with some “adaptations”
- First year pupils at secondary school may have to be re-taught English and maths from their final year syllabus at primary level
- A new focus on tackling “persistently disruptive” pupils because increased poor behaviour is seen as more “likely” due to a lack of regular schooling and discipline in lockdown
- Routine Ofsted inspections will remain suspended for the autumn term but inspectors will visit a sample of schools to discuss how they are resuming classroom teaching.
The full guidance to state and private school headteachers is set to go out this week, with the caveat that a “full return” of all pupils will be reconfirmed on August 11 after the latest Covid-19 data is considered.
Reopening schools is seen as key not just to tackling educational inequalities that have grown during the pandemic but also to freeing up working parents who have had to look after their children at home for more than three months.
Only limited numbers of school pupils have been allowed back into the classroom as the lockdown has eased in recent weeks, with reception, Year 1, Year 6, Year 10 and Year 12 given priority.
Boris Johnson had to ditch a previous plan to give all primary pupils four weeks of classroom before the summer break, after it emerged that many schools couldn’t cope with the staffing or space needed to operate 15-pupil protective “bubble” classes.
The decision to create “mega bubbles” of whole year groups for secondary pupils is seen as the only practical way to allow subject-by-subject teaching.
The Department for Education guidance will state that while smaller class bubbles may be advised in some cases, the overarching and starting organisational principle will be of a “full year group bubble”.
The separated year groups will be allowed to use shared areas such as dining halls at different times, after cleaning with bleach. Toilets can be shared by year groups with regular cleaning.
But they will be expected to arrive, leave and take breaks at different times from each other, and multiple year groups will not be allowed to take part in school assemblies.
If a school bus is provided, year groups should be seated together. Year groups could also queue separately for public transport buses. All pupils using buses or trains will have to wear face coverings and take them off on arrival at school.
The emphasis will be on the low risk to children and young people from Covid and the need to act in a way “proportionate” to that risk, while safeguarding pupils and staff.
Overall, the guidance will range from compulsory to advisory measures that headteachers should take to make schools safe.
The categories of advice include “must do”, “must do in some way, but permissive on how” and “strongly advised in specific circumstances described”.
The guidance will state that while smaller class bubbles may be advised in some cases, the starting organisational principle will be of a “full year group bubble”.
Schools will be asked to publish their revised risk assessments for the all-pupil return so that parents, students and staff can see them.
The guidance will state how low-risk young people are from Covid-19 but it will also make clear what should happen if a child shows symptoms during the school day, including swift isolation accompanied by a member of staff until their parents arrive to collect them.
While waiting, the child should be kept 2m away from the supervising teacher. If that is not possible, in the case of a young child or one with complex needs, staff should wear full PPE – disposable gloves, a disposable apron, a fluid-resistant surgical face mask and in some cases eye goggles.
Schools will be expected to source their PPE locally from their council or local resilience forum but if they cannot get adequate supplies they will have to reassess the risk and whether it is safe to stay open.
Where there are multiple cases in a school, a letter should be sent to parents informing them but names of those who test positive for the virus should not be shared by the school.
During the pandemic, ministers have said parents would not be prosecuted for not sending their children to school.
But with low numbers of vulnerable children actually attending, there are real fears that some pupils will have to be closely monitored for attendance from September.
The guidance will state that as a last resort sanctions such as fixed penalty notices – £60 then doubled to £120 if not paid – should be applied, but that all schools should use the summer to inform parents of their duty to send their children to class from the autumn term.
Williamson told LBC on Monday that fines were one option. “Unless there is a good reason for the absence then we will be looking at the fact that we would be imposing fines on families if they are not sending their children back,” he said.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.