How Will UK Schools Make a Phased Return?

Author: Bethany Spencer

Posted: 07 May 2020

Estimated time to read: 5 mins

As the UK has now reached the peak of the coronavirus outbreak, speculation has started around what that means for the current lockdown and social distancing measures. We’ve already seen work in the construction industry resume and slowly but surely more restaurant chains are opening up to provide a takeaway service and these moves have got many teachers, students and parents wondering - when will schools reopen?

Within the world, Denmark, China and Germany, amongst others, have begun reopening schools since the coronavirus outbreak. Within the UK, schools in England have been told by Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, that primary pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 could be returning after the May half term - June 1st 2020. Scotland and Wales have not yet announced when they plan on more students returning to school and Northern Ireland has predicted September.

In order to help schools prepare for their return to school, whether that's after the May half term or later in the year, we've looked at the measures other countries have put in place and created a list of potential tactics that schools could enforce to support their phased return whilst ensuring the safety of both staff and students:

Returning pupils

A phased return to school means that not all students will return to school at once. The reasons for this being that it would be impossible to enforce social distancing measures - full classrooms, narrow corridors, busy cafeterias and overcrowding at the school gates - would make an ideal spreading ground for the virus. 

This begs the questions, which students will be returning to school? In countries who have returned to school we’ve seen various different measures taken. In Denmark, primary aged children have been the first to return to school whereas in Germany, it has been the older pupils who have been asked to return to the classroom. 

But even in these circumstances it’s key to remember that the classes the children are attending will rotate so students will not return to school for a full week, unless they are the child of a keyworker. 

UK Return to School

Staggered start times 

In a bid to avoid overcrowding at the school gates at the beginning and end of the school day, as well as avoiding gatherings of students in the corridors, a staggered school day may be enforced. This would see teachers, as usual, arriving ahead of students but then, depending on the classes in school that day, having different starts and ends to the day to avoid unnecessary contact with others. 

Schools would also have to consider a system whereby students and their parents queue up before the school gates with a safe distance between them. Children could then either be called in or collected by teachers or TAs and seated in their social distanced seating plan. 

To further support this initiative, schools could also have different entrances and exits for different year groups. This would completely eliminate the risk of parents and students coming into close proximity with each other.

These staggered times could also transcend into the school day during break and lunch times so that students have separate slots to go outside and eat their lunch in a bid to avoid unnecessary contact with one another. 

Adapted classrooms

One of the biggest changes we may see in a phased return to school could be the way students and teachers work around the classroom. Firstly, students and teachers will need to maintain a safe distance from one another. This could see the class sizes being drastically reduced and seating plans rearranged so that there remains a two metre distance between desks as well as enough space for teachers to comfortably navigate the classroom. 

There have also been examples of all students and teaching staff staying in the same classroom for the entirety of the school day in order to minimise travel throughout the school. This approach does mean that students won’t have their specific subject teacher present for all classes, however, classwork can continue to be issued online by specific teachers and pupils will have the additional support of a teacher when in class.

Alternatively, some schools are allowing teachers to navigate from different classrooms with heightened levels of safety so they can teach particular subjects via designated routes outlined in the corridors. However, schools should take into consideration the types of classes that are in school and if this is necessary - for example, some schools may have mixed age groups and abilities that may make a whole-class teaching approach challenging and therefore shouldn’t increase the movement of subject teachers around the school.

In addition to these changes within the classroom, students should be expected to see more of an emphasis on self-marking to avoid unnecessary contact between students and teaching staff through the passing of books. This could end up being a real time-saver for teachers and a useful skill for students in the long run. Self-marking obviously takes a load off the teachers but it also gives students the skills they need to properly evaluate their own work and look for where they can improve. It’s also something that students would be able to transfer throughout their education.

Improved health and safety efforts 

Ahead of schools’ phased return it’s likely we’ll see an updated health and safety policy, or one that’s been created for the interim, that outlines how all stakeholders should be conducting themselves during this period. In order to keep students, staff and their families as safe as possible schools are going to have to ramp up their cleaning and hygiene practices to help reduce the spread of the virus. 

In China, there have been extreme cleaning and hygiene measures put in place to ensure the safety of staff and students - classes are well ventilated, schools are more thoroughly cleaned throughout the day and students and teachers are provided with disinfectant materials outside of the classroom to use when entering and leaving the room.

Schools will need to consider how they’re going to keep the school clean and the extra efforts they will need to go to to ensure this. In Denmark pupils are required to wash their hands every hour to reduce the risk of spreading the virus whereas in China,  pupils’ temperature will be checked throughout the day to look for symptoms of the coronavirus. 

In addition to these measures, schools will need to consider what they plan to do with children in schools who have suspected symptoms of COVID-19, where they will isolate them and how will parents collect students from school. 

Impact on learning 

Understandably, students’ learning will have been impacted since the school closures that have been put in place during lockdown. As part of their reopening strategy, schools need to consider how they’re going to address this loss of learning - will, once students are eased back into the classroom and adjusting to school life, additional lessons in core subjects be added to the timetable? Will the school term continue throughout the extended summer holidays? 

Teachers and schools will be keen to make up for any loss in learning that has occurred but at the same time, need to consider the impact an updated timetable could have on teacher and student wellbeing. There’s a fine line to tread here but hopefully, based on other countries' return to school plans, we can find an approach that benefits everyone. 

Additionally, schools could consider updating the curriculum to include lessons on epidemic prevention, or similar topics, as we’ve seen in China. With fears of a second spread of the virus until a vaccine is found, it is important to provide our students with an education on how we can reduce this risk of an outbreak, remain safe and also, provide them with as much context and understanding of the current pandemic we’re living through as possible. 

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