Black Country and Staffordshire schools working to minimise risk for return of children
The safety of children going back to school is "paramount" leaders have said – but they have also admitted it would be impossible to eliminate every risk.
Thousands of pupils across the Black Country and Staffordshire will be heading back into the classroom next week, but they will be experiencing a very new way of learning.
Critics have said there can be "no assurance" that children will be kept safe being back at school and have said it is vital youngsters are not put in danger of coronavirus.
Councillor Dr Michael Hardacre, Wolverhampton Council's education chief, said: "Education is vitally important for all children and young people, and so we are keen they are able to return to school as soon as possible – but only as long as it is safe for them and their teachers to do so.
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"We are very clear that their safety, and that of school staff and the wider community, is paramount.
"As in every aspect of life, there will always be risks, and it is impossible to completely eliminate these. Nevertheless, we are working with schools to minimise them and we would only agree to schools opening to more pupils if we thought it was safe for this to happen."
Sandwell Council leader Yvonne Davies added: "My view is that parents have to decide for themselves if the time is right for their children to return to school.
"I don't want families to be scared of getting into trouble if they feel that the circumstances - of sending their children back to school - will put themselves or their family members at risk. No parents will be fined or get in trouble."
Councillor Ruth Buttery, cabinet member for children’s services at Dudley Council, said: "There is a high degree of confidence that the severity of disease in children is lower than in adults and there is no evidence to suggest that children transmit the virus any more than adults.
"Although our teachers have done an amazing job, with home education, not all children are able to access this or fully utilise this resource, and there is a potential for some children to fall behind and becomes disadvantaged. So class based education needs to be fully restored."
And Councillor Philip White, education boss at Staffordshire County Council said: "We are working with our primary schools to provide them with the advice and support they need so they can reopen safely in line with government guidance.
"Each school and academy will be informing their parents and carers of their individual arrangements, including which year groups they can safely accommodate, how many pupils per classroom, and what social distancing measures will be in place."
Walsall Council also said it is working with schools on a phased reopening. Schools are in the process of completing risk assessments to identify how many, and which, children they can safely accommodate in line with the government guidance.
New measures to be introduced
Sitting two metres away from classmates, washing hands multiple times a day, and not being able to share books and stationary – pupils will have to get used to a whole new way of learning as they get ready to come back to school post-lockdown.
Schools across the Black Country and Staffordshire have been putting strict measures in place to keep students and staff safe when they come back to school this week.
While each school is in charge of its own well-being, most establishments have introduced similar sets of rules; including social distancing in the classrooms, double the amount of cleaning, and new hand sanitisers.
Staff at Landywood Primary School in Great Wyrley have been hard at work preparing or the return of pupils.
They have installed foot-operated hand sanitisers, created "bubbles" for different groups of children to keep them safe, and changed the seating arrangements so classmates can be sat two metres apart.
Teachers have also come up with new systems for previously simple tasks, such as reading books. Now, when students are back at school, once they pick up a book they cannot give it to another child. When they are finished with the book it goes in a box where it stays for one week until staff are confident no traces of the virus remain. Then it can be used again.
Headteacher Andrew Clewer said they had come up with a special "recovery curriculum" to make sure they were keeping students and staff as safe as possible.
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.
Landywood will be welcoming back its nursery age pupils on June 1, along with reception, year one and year six.
Stafford Grammar School will also be welcoming back Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 next week – headteacher Lee Thomas has said small class sizes will make the return "as safe as possible".
Mr Thomas said: "As we are able to make the return to school as safe as possible, due to our small class sizes, it’s important for children to be re-introduced to school before the summer holiday.
"Whilst they have seen each other on screen during lessons, it will be good for the children’s wellbeing to start seeing each other and their teachers in person, albeit socially distanced.
"Meanwhile we will also continue to follow a full programme of online teaching, so that any pupils unable to return can still benefit from accessing lessons and interacting with their teachers and classmates online."
Elsewhere, in Bridgnorth, St Leonards Primary has been demonstrating how children will sit two metres apart in classrooms by rearranging the desks.
Sarah Godden, CEO of the Trusted Schools Partnership and headteacher Kay Ferriday have been putting in place new measures to keep pupils and staff safe.
Council leaders across the region have said they worked hard with school headteachers to make sure it was safe for children and staff to go back – but that ultimately it was the parents’ decision.
In Dudley, 66 schools are planning a phased return over the next week – opening to at least one of the three target year groups, with the remaining schools to follow suit over the coming weeks.
The schools are anticipating 50 per cent of eligible pupils to return when they reopen, with numbers to increase as the weeks pass.
However one councillor in Birmingham has refused to send her children back to school.
Councillor Kath Scott, who chairs Birmingham City Council’s education and children’s social care overview and scrutiny committee, said she thought children were being “experimented on” by being sent back to school next week.