Are we opening? I’m sorry, but we don’t know yet

It’s all very well Government making big announcements with dashing headlines (Schools to reopen from 1st June) but when they don’t do the detail until later, and when that detail covers only half the possibilities, and when it misses a few of the fundamentals that apply to schools in some contexts, it is saying too much far too quickly.

I know that this sounds like a moan, but it is meant as an explanation of why we have not been able to make definitive statements yet, a whole week after the Prime Minister made his announcement to the nation.

The supporting guidance for schools actually only came out on Tuesday, and then was updated on Wednesday and again on Thursday.

Quite rightly, and with great foresight,  our Local Authority lead advised us not to dash to plan or to inform parents as anything we planned was quite likely to be supplanted by revisions and new information. He was right.

The guidance is based around the mythical average Primary School – which may well not actually exist – but certainly does not reflect our context very well. We have three times the national average of ‘vulnerable’ pupils attending daily. We have five times the national average of key workers’ children attending. We have 484 children on a site built for 360. We already have staggered lunchtimes. We have, effectively, one entrance and exit. We are a Key Stage 2 only school – that has transition in and out. We have over a quarter of our parents indicated as ‘key workers’, about 20% more than average. We are one of the lowest funded schools per pupil in Sheffield and accordingly have one of the highest pupil:teacher ratios – we have the lowest staffing capacity to absorb absence. We have half our classes taught by job share teachers – about 25% above average. We have just one hall and two playgrounds but 16 classes – so we cannot have every class outside learning and not mixing. We are over capacity and over admission number and in two year groups we have classes of over 30 pupils.

All these factors make planning wider opening harder here than at an ‘average’ school. (There are many locations where it is going to be more complicated, near impossible; schools with even higher numbers of key and crucial workers, for example.)

Right now I do not know for sure who comes first – some Headteachers disagree with my interpretation of the guidance – children of key workers or children in YR, Y1 and Y6 or ‘vulnerable’ children. I do not know if we are supposed to effectively reserve places for all those children. I do not know for sure if we are implementing social distancing measures (2 metres apart) or a ‘contact bubble’ approach of keeping groups separated. I do not know for sure what to do if we cannot accommodate a whole set of children (the guidance has said (and not said) that no children should be in on a rota basis. Presumably offer all or nothing – the guidance just doesn’t say the ‘nothing’ option.) I do not know what the LA could do to find us extra teaching spaces to put groups of children or extra staff to teach them. I do not know or certain that we will be able to provide meals, or to serve them over an extended staggered lunch break. I do not know how many of my staff will be assured by restated guidance on shielding arrangements over critical health vulnerabilities.  I do not have a workable, reasonable plan yet on how we would address a situation where someone fell ill with symptoms while at school. I do not know how we could possibly continue to provide materials to support home learning if all our teaching staff are engaged in teaching groups of up to 15 children all day each day. I do not know what we do with the 16th child – some of our classes have 31 children, so if we divide in two, where does the 16th child in a group go if groups should be no more than 15?  I do not know how we arrange staggered starts and ends to each day when there will be sibling links within groups so children will arrive together and need to leave together. I do not see how we are keeping adults apart outside the gate. I do not have an effective method of seeing parents’ enquiries being answered when we are guided (by the Guidance) to not allow parents onto the site except with an appointment.

And all that needs sorting before we start wider opening and before we communicate plans to parents.

Then there is the on-going and summer term activity we are getting Y6 back to do – to meet the staff at the destination schools, to go on day visits, to explore a new curriculum and a host of other transition tasks. We have yet to fully explore how any of this might be done while at the same time limiting contacts outside each group. The Guidance says Secondary Schools will not host Primary pupils (not ‘may not’, but ‘will not’).

I’m sorry, but right now it feels like the things I do not know outnumber the things I do by a factor of 3 (on average). It is not an answer that inspires confidence and that is why I have not been communicating this to parents this week.

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