‘School will not be school’ - Headteacher’s ‘open and honest’ letter to parents
PUBLISHED: 18:13 14 May 2020 | UPDATED: 15:59 15 May 2020
Archant Norfolk © 2014
A headteacher has laid out her vision of what a return to school could look like, saying she cannot guarantee the safety of children.
Debbie Whiting, headteacher at North Denes Primary School in Great Yarmouth, said there was “no such thing” as social distancing in schools and that there would always be a risk of Covid-19 spreading.
Writing on the school’s Facebook page she said it was up to parents to decide if they wanted their children to return to the classroom under the Government’s phased reopening which would be nothing like “normal” school.
Apologising for being blunt she said: “I am not going to write and tell you we can achieve social distancing and guarantee total safety in a school.
“We can always make things safer, we could perhaps reduce the risk slightly, but as soon as lots of children return, I can tell you that the risk will be there.”
MORE: Everything you need to know about school reopenings
She said she was still working out how a safe environment could be achieved, with the youngest children likely to struggle most with the new regimes.
So far it looked like pupils would be taught in “bubbles” of up to six with the same teacher, never mixing with others.
There would probably be staggered start and finish times to avoid congestion at the school gate, and single adult drop-off/collection rules.
Classrooms will be set up for social distancing with all furniture removed, children will have to remain at their desks and keep to their own equipment, and there will be one-way systems and constant cleaning.
Pictures added alongside the post show children in playgrounds restricted to their own marked square, and classrooms set out to adhere to distancing rules.
“The days will seem long for them and we may decide to shorten them,” she said.
MORE: Headteachers cast doubt on primary school reopening plans
The post went on: “I can tell you quite honestly that there is no such thing as social distancing in a school – we can try but we certainly cannot guarantee it.
“It does not exist and never would exist.
“The reasons childhood illnesses spread in a school is because we are all in contact with each other.
“I can put two children in a class, at opposite ends of the room, and they will still get chicken pox because that is how it is in a school.
“This Covid-19 virus is nasty and it is a super spreader.”
Mrs Whiting said she was being straight with parents so they could make an informed decision about whether their children went back to school before the summer.
She said: “It is important because I wouldn’t want you to think that your children are missing school, their friends and normality – as we all are - and so just decide on that alone to send them back.
“School will NOT be school in that sense and lunch times and break times, class times and the teaching staff will all be different.
“IT WILL NOT BE NORMAL. They will not be playing tag in the playground and being in close contact with others.”
The planned phased return applies to reception, year one and year six only and could not be achieved at North Denes until June 8 at the earliest.
MORE: ‘Unworkable’, ‘confusing and upsetting’: Parents react to school return plans
People commenting on the post have widely praised Mrs Whiting for her frank approach, although some have criticised her tone saying it sounds as if the children are not welcome.
Mike Smith-Clare, a borough councillor whose ward includes many children at the school and Labour’s county lead on children and young people, said: “It is imperative that schools put the safety of their staff and children first.
“This must always be the first consideration.
“It is a cruel nonsense for any government to expect the education sector to play Russian roulette with their charges.”
Penny Sheppard, headteacher at Queen’s Hill Primary and Nursery School in Costessey, Norwich, said: “We will slowly introduce year groups for schooling as and when the government say it is safe to do so using the experiences that we have gained in the last two months. We know that social distancing is very difficult for pupils of all ages however we can remind them to stay apart when possible.
“What is more important for us is that the children stay in their separate pods, or bubbles as the government now call them whilst following good hygiene routines so that we limit the amount of possible infection.
“We are currently drawing up plans on how we can safely introduce more children into the mix. Children will continue to eat their lunches in their bubble, we will encourage them to bring in their own pencil cases from home which they will keep at school. Staff will be encouraged to work alongside pupils rather than in front of them and will regularly clean work surfaces and door handles etc. We will continue to think very carefully about what resources we have out to aid pupils’ learning.
“If our plans go ahead after half term, school will not look like it did six months ago. Parents won’t be able to be attend cafes and show and share assemblies, we won’t have lunch in the hall, children will be encouraged to play games such as shadow tag rather than “it”. We will be potentially running a three tier system of childcare, schooling and online/home learning.
“At Queen’s Hill we have incredibly committed staff and a great community. I know that our children will continue to be supported and will develop their passion for learning whether they are at home or school.”
Tim Lambillion-Jameson, Norfolk county secretary of NASUWT teachers’ union, said: “Our drive is, are schools safe and I don’t think we are entirely convinced that the government has suggested anything that is safe. We would like to see how reception class children are going to do social distancing.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “All the unions share concerns about the scientific basis for the government’s decisions over the reopening of schools, and it would help to improve confidence if the government would provide more information about the scientific evidence and how it has informed these plans. The government has convened a meeting with its scientific advisers in which we’ll have the opportunity to ask them questions.
“It is important to understand that we’re not trying to impede the reopening of schools. We very much want to see children back in classrooms. But we have always said that the time must be right, and there must be a clear, and robust set of guidance which ensures that this can be done in a way which is safe. The big problem with the proposals which have been announced is that they represent a very significant increase in the number of children in primary schools, and this includes very young children for whom social distancing is most difficult.
“It is difficult to reconcile this with the general public health advice which continues to be to avoid social interaction as much as possible. It is this apparent contradiction which really needs to be unpicked.
“And while there is a detailed set of guidance, we haven’t seen any modelling which demonstrates the extent to which these processes mitigate against the risk of infection. We are effectively being asked to accept the government’s decisions on faith, and this isn’t really good enough given the very high stakes involved. It would be remiss of us not to ask for more information and assurances, so that is what we are doing.”
Meanwhile, the Government should “step back” from its plan to reopen schools in England to more pupils from June 1, education unions have urged.
Nine unions, representing school leaders, teachers and support staff, have accused the Government of showing a “lack of understanding” about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus in schools.
The joint statement, published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), warns that staff will “not be protected” by social distancing if primary schools reopen to more year groups from next month.
But addressing MPs in the House of Commons on Wednesday, education secretary Gavin Williamson warned against “scaremongering” over safety, adding that it was “not a welcome pressure” to place on families.
He added that the Government had worked “very closely with all the teaching unions and headteachers’ unions”, with time made available each week to discuss matters.
Mr Williamson said: “When you have medical and scientific advice that is saying it’s the right time to start bringing schools back in a phased and controlled manner, it seems only the right thing to do and the only responsible thing to do.”
But he acknowledged that allowing pupils to return to school would be “challenging”.