Managing COVID-19 Within Schools

The reopening of schools to all pupils in certain year groups on 1 June has caused an outcry over COVID-19 safety concerns. Reading’s Dr Catherine Foley tells CONNECTED why it’s critical that we listen to teachers during this process.

Head teachers, teachers, and everyone who works in a school deserves the respect and support of their communities and government. But instead they have become embroiled in debate since the government announced, that as part of the phased approach to easing COVID-19 restrictions, schools would reopen on 1 June for all Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils.

Dr Foley, Associate Professor in the Institute of Education, asks that we listen to the concerns of all staff working in schools and discuss the considerable challenges they will face.

An incredible transformation

Dr Foley is in admiration of the phenomenal transformation schools have achieved so far and explains that one of the frustrations of the debate around whether schools should re-open is that they never really closed.

She said: “Almost overnight head teachers transformed their schools into sanctuaries of care and education for key worker and vulnerable children. Rotas have been set up, adapted, and shared to provide continuity whilst keeping children and staff safe. They have been providing high-quality home-schooling, managing the chaos of the free school meal system, and checking on vulnerable children.

“Of course teachers are desperate to see their classes again – they went into the profession to work with children, not to post materials to Google classroom or talk through homework via Zoom.

“They are highly skilled professionals and there is no substitute for face-to-face teaching. However, they face many questions and dilemmas about moving to the next stage of easing COVID-19 restrictions.”

The next steps

Dr Foley explains that despite capped class sizes, maintaining social distancing in schools is going to be challenging if not impossible.

She said:

“At the moment, children will be returning to an unfamiliar and frightening environment. Schools work because in them children laugh, play, talk, read, handle equipment, explore, make, and listen. Most of these things will be constrained by the need to socially distance – try explaining that to a four year-old.

“Anyone who is suggesting that the next stage is simple is misguided and ill-informed. It is easy to declare that class sizes will be capped at 15. It is harder to model how 15 children, plus their teacher, fit into a standard classroom with the kind of distancing that is being deemed safe for every other profession. Given that in most primary schools, in normal circumstances, every classroom is full to the brim, it is impossible to explain how head teachers will be able to double the classrooms and teachers that they can use to accommodate this ‘cap’, as we move towards the aspiration of all children returning before the summer.

“For example, for an infant school to be told they have to take in both Reception and Year 1 raises impossible questions – just one of which is the fact that there are insufficient classrooms and staff to follow the guidance of no more than 15 children per classroom. Another question is if a school’s teachers are all teaching Reception and Year 1, who is teaching the older children of key workers and vulnerable families? Another challenge is then who will provide the home-schooling to those children still at home?

“Teachers are worried that the quality and support they can provide will diminish as they are stretched in ways that are unproven and unsafe.

“Which leads me to one more question. The Chamber of the House of Commons has just under 440 seats, yet has been set up to operate with just 50 MPs at a time. A one-form intake school, with seven classes of 30 children, has been told that they should re-open for three classes or 90 children on 1 June, and potentially for all 210 children over the next few weeks, without extended hours or rota systems. Perhaps we should fill the Chamber with the same number of children and staff, without Personal Protective Equipment [PPE], and see whether ministers remain as convinced that it is safe to operate.”

Listen to our teachers

Dr Foley believes that to make any transition work, the government needs to listen to the teaching professionals.

She said: “Head teachers have the experience and expertise to manage this process, but they need time, space and support to make it work for their school. They should be supported by the whole community and defended by ministers in government.

“In this country we have a teaching profession to be proud of. Rather than dismissing teachers’ fears and concerns as squabbles, let’s hear them, respect them, and keep them safe to do what they do best – looking after the learning, development and safety of all our children.”

Find out more about Dr Foley’s research.

This article was first published in The University of Reading Connecting Research Blog on 22 May 2020.