Wednesday, 08 July 2020

Primary schools gear up for partial reopening

Primary schools gear up for partial reopening

PRIMARY and preparatory schools in the Henley area could welcome some pupils back next month as the coronavirus lockdown continues to ease.

Those who spoke to the Henley Standard this week said they were compiling risk assessments and seeking parents’ views on restarting classes for nursery and reception pupils and those in years 1 and 6.

This is line with Government guidance, which says it should be safe to do so on June 1 as long as protective measures are observed and the rate of new covid-19 infections doesn’t start going back up.

Tim Coulson, head teacher at Valley Road Primary School in Henley, said he was surveying parents and would make a decision on reopening soon.

Since the lockdown was introduced on March 23, he and his staff have been teaching children remotely using video messaging apps.

Mr Coulson said: “That has been really successful – we did a survey which found the children still felt like part of a school community, which is the most important thing.

“We recognise that every family situation is unique and the real question is how we get back together physically, which is tough because Government guidance is changing regularly.

“We’ve had numerous updates, which is inevitable as there are many issues to be addressed and the most important is socially distancing children. That’s a real challenge for very young ones and we have a lot of them.

“We have prepared a comprehensive risk assessment, which covers everything from preparing the building itself to ensuring staff, parents and pupils feel secure.

“Our parents were asked how they felt about returning and most wanted to in principle but had concerns about how it would work in practice. We take those concerns very seriously as trust is important and we want to always do the right thing.

“There’s no way that any good, professional teacher would not want children to be in school. Our staff have done a brilliant job with remote tools but want to see their pupils and we just need to make sure we’ve got systems in place to do that safely.”

Nick Steele, the head of Peppard Primary School, said he was looking at ways to reopen safely but would respect parents’ and teachers’ wishes if they didn’t want to come in.

He said: “We’ve just finished our risk assessment and I will be meeting staff this week to see whether or not they feel it’s safe to attend. If enough people don’t feel it’s safe, I won’t be able to do it.

“I’ve already spoken to a number of parents who don’t feel it’s the right thing to do. They feel it’s a risk and are choosing to wait a bit longer.

“It’s a difficult issue as everyone’s perception of risk is different. For example, I have to state whether the children’s risk of spreading disease through coughs and sneezes is ‘high’. ‘medium’ or ‘low’ and that’s very subjective.

“Given that this is a small village school with about 45 children, it’s quite conceivable that we might only take 20 back at first. I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The independent St Mary’s School in St Andrew’s Road, Henley, will reopen on June 1 but with reduced class sizes and restrictions on pupils mixing.

Start and pick-up times will be staggered for different year groups, as will play times, while provision for the children of key workers will continue.

About half of the school’s families intend to come back while a third will probably not and the remainder are undecided. More than 90 per cent agreed remote teaching was working well.

A spokeswoman said: “We are confident that our online learning continues to meet pupils’ needs so St. Mary’s offers a high quality education whether we are back in the classroom or working remotely.

“Our parents have been extremely supportive and have said the quality of the online learning is unparalleled.

“Our number one aim is to ensure that our staff, parents and pupils have confidence in the procedures and practices we are putting in place to ensure that the phased return is a success and the risk of contracting coronavirus is low.”

Rupert House School, another independent in Bell Street, Henley, will also reopen for the four year groups.

Head teacher Clare Lynas said: “We will be running three schools simultaneously: the online classes, which have received very positive feedback, plus provision for the returners and the children of key workers. This will be a challenge but I’m confident we will rise to it.

“We will be implementing all the Government’s guidelines and trying to keep our offering as broad and engaging as always while keeping the children safe. The rules are fairly strict on matters such as mixing.

“Overall, parents have been positive towards the idea of a return and they are about to receive more information on how this will work.”

Oxfordshire County Council, the education authority, says it is in regular contact with the Government on the matter.

A spokesman said: “The Government has set out an aim for more children to attend school from 1 June if the conditions are right for them to do so. 

“It will decide when schools might re-open and has published several sets of guidance for schools, academy trusts, councils, parents and carers.

“Like all councils, we will publish details once agreed with central government and based on their instructions and guidelines. The safety of pupils, teachers and residents is our absolute priority.”

The Department for Education says it is monitoring the covid-19 infection rate daily and will only allow reopenings if it is safe. It is possible that other primary years could return in June but no decision has been made.

There are no plans to open secondary schools before the summer.

The Government’s strategy has been criticised by the National Education Union, which says official guidance isn’t detailed enough and the infection rate remains too high.

The British Medical Association initially said schools should remain shut until case numbers were much lower but now says they should reopen “as soon as it is safe.”

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