Coronavirus: Schools in region set for June reopening despite concerns
Schools in the Black Country and Staffordshire are all set to reopen their doors to some pupils next month – despite concerns over the safety of children and staff.
The Government has announced a proposed phased reopening of primary schools – with children in nursery, reception and years one and six able to return to the classroom, if Covid-19 infection rates and other tests at the time allow it.
But as schools work with their local authorities across the region to make preparations to reopen from June 1 – concerns have been raised about sending children back to school too soon, with some arguing they are being used as "guinea pigs".
Teaching unions and doctors have also warned it is too early for schools to safely reopen.
A petition against the reopening of schools in Wolverhampton, started by Wolverhampton Mutual Aid, has already gained more than 1,600 signatures.
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Grandparent Sally Cook, a spokesman for the group, said: "We have grave concerns about the safety of a wider return for schools. There is no conclusive evidence that it is safe to return.
“Children must not be guinea pigs here. Their education is vitally important but risking one life is not worth a premature return for more children.
"We have every confidence in headteachers' and teachers' ability to help children readjust to school, but it needs to be done safely and in a timely manner. June 1 is too soon."
Rowley Regis teacher Chris Burden said: "I’m not a scientist, so I couldn’t say if it is safe. However, I don’t know if I feel safe.
"Even with 15 students in a class, you couldn’t get them to socially distance in a room, there simply isn’t enough space."
But Wolverhampton Council's cabinet member for education, Dr Michael Hardacre, said scientific advice had made it "crystal clear" that there was no evidence that reopening schools could lead to a spike in Covid-19.
He said schools in the city would be open from June 1, with a staff training day followed by the return of some year groups. Headteachers and governors will be given the final say on whether their individual schools open.
Councillor Hardacre said: "The council, understanding the Government has requested schools directly to reopen on June 1, has entered into widespread negotiations with all educational providers, parents, and trade unions in order to try and ensure that there is some kind of city-wide conformity in the best interests of all children.
"Our number one priority is the safety of children and staff. Parents will need to look at the arrangements that the individual schools make and make their own decision.
"We remain clear that safety is paramount, and a cautious, measured approach is necessary.”
Sandwell Council has been working with schools in the borough to find a "common approach" to the phased return.
Councillor Joyce Underhill, cabinet member for best start in life, said: "Schools have reviewed the requirements for social distancing, hygiene and cleaning required daily, as well as organisational changes they may need to make the school day to open.
"June 1 is the start of a process for reopening and, initially, not all children will be able to start on a full-time basis. Schools and academies will inform parents and carers of arrangements they are making and will also confirm which days children can attend from June 1.”
Dudley Council, along with its schools in the borough, have been planning for the day they could welcome more children back into school ever since the decision was taken to close them to the majority back in March.
Councillor Ruth Buttery, cabinet member for children's services, said: "Our education staff has been worked tirelessly behind the scenes with colleagues in public health, corporate landlord services, our headteachers and the department for education to ensure when able to, we could expand the number of children in schools safely.
“The Government has set an ambition for more pupils to begin to return to school from the June 1 and have been clear that priority will be given to children in nursery, reception, year one and year six. Our aim is therefore to reopen schools to those year groups after half term, subject to confirmation from the Government on May 28, and in line with the schools' own risk assessments and recovery plans."
Staffordshire County Council bosses say they anticipate the "majority of schools will be open in some way" from June 1 – but the decision about how and when they open lies with the individual school.
Councillor Philip White, the authority's cabinet member for learning and employability, said: "Schools know what is best for their staff and pupils, so it is up to each individual school to make the decision about when and how they can open."
A spokesman for Walsall Council said they were working with their schools on a phased reopening from June 1 – with schools in the borough in the process of completing risk assessments to identify how many children they can accommodate in line with Government guidance.
Headteachers across the region have said the safety of their staff and pupils will be at the forefront as they make plans to open their doors early next month.
Landywood Primary School, in Great Wyrley, is getting ready to open on June 1. Headteacher Andrew Clewer said there were "high levels of anxiety" amongst staff and parents – but that student safety would always come first.
He said: "Our children will be split into groups of 15 – and once they are in that group it's like their bubble, they are not allowed to mix with other groups. We have a play space for every group, we are promoting the two-metre distancing while in classrooms, and we have trebled our cleaning frequency.
"We have had to change the way we do things. Like with reading books, because the virus could be on a book, once the child has finished with a book they must put it in a certain labelled box where it will stay for six days until we can be sure the virus has gone. We can't give it to another child before then."
Hydesville Tower School, in Walsall – which is part of the Cognita Schools, with schools across the world – is set to open from Tuesday, June 2. Headteacher, Warren Honey, said the school had been able to learn from one of their fellow schools in Switzerland, which recently reopened.
He said: "We are very much following Government expectations with regards to opening for those specified year groups – nursery, reception, year one and year six. We are going to reopen from June 2, we are going to use June 1 as a a test-run day with staff just to make sure we are completely happy all the processes and procedures are going to keep children, staff and parents safe.
"We are doing full risk assessments with regards to the site, to ensure all provisions for locations staff and children will use will be fit for purpose. All of the necessary distancing can be achieved.
"We are part of a global schools group, we are very fortunate that we have got some schools that have already gone through in some degree reopening both in the Far East and Switzerland – so we are able to provide a clear guidance booklet of our opening procedures, which can be shared with parents and staff, so they are fully aware of our expectations.
"The schools in the Far East and Switzerland have had a very successful reopening, it has gone very positively and has been very reassuring for their parents in terms of the procedures that have been followed – and therefore we are in that fortunate position, whereby we are able to share those best practices to make sure the concerns parents and teachers have are being accommodated and we are responding to them."
Shelley Reeves–Walters, executive headteacher of Wolverley Sebright Primary and Far Forest Lea Memorial CE Primary, both in Wyre Forest, said: "Some parents feel now is the right time, some would rather wait and some are very reluctant as they are at risk. Everyone has different opinions – good and bad.
"It is hard at the moment to look ahead, it has been quite difficult for everyone to do that and that has helped the hesitation. No one knows what June 1, will look like. It is how we support our children and their family with the transition back into school that is important."
Tettenhall College headteacher Christopher McAllister said it is "critical that health, safety and wellbeing of our potentially returning staff and pupils is paramount in all provisions we will put into place". He said the school is looking forward to welcoming back "some" of their pupils from June 1.
The school will operate one-way systems, staggered start and finish times, pupil supervision, allocated break times, thorough cleaning of washrooms numerous times within the school day and install additional hand sanitisers. Social distancing tape will mark out key areas and the school will undergo a deep clean at the end of every day.
Mr McAllister said: "We will plan to open the major areas of the campus to create as ‘close to normality’ as we can for our returning pupils, whilst ensuring the health, safety and positive wellbeing of our staff and pupils are paramount, at all times.
"Even though these times do not enable the ‘normality’ we are all used to around the college, we look forward to potentially welcoming back some of our pupils in June, to a ‘new normal’ at Tettenhall College."
A spokesman for the Perry Hall Multi-Academy Trust, which runs four primary schools in Wolverhampton, said: "As a trust, we are continuing to closely follow the guidance being provided by the Government in relation to the reopening schools. We are currently preparing to open all six of our schools on June 1 for year one and year six pupils, initially for three days each week.
"It is our intention to welcome children back into school from other specified year groups as and when it becomes safe to do so.
"The reopening of all of our schools remains to be fully reliant on any further announcements made by the Government up until that point. The safety of our pupils, their families and our staff members remain our absolute priority during this process and all will be fully consulted and informed throughout."