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Coronavirus: what next for schools and colleges

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Message from NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman to members

As you may have seen from this evening's official government briefing, the coronavirus lockdown will continue for at least another three weeks.

We hope this information will bring some relief to the speculation frenzy that has surrounded schools' reopening over the last week or so. The truth is, no one can say for sure how long the lockdown will need to last. For the foreseeable future, things will stay as they have been.

The speculation is enormously damaging to your efforts, and it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the school context and how it differs from others.

NAHT's position remains that schools should only reopen when the scientific evidence is clear that it is safe to do so. Safe for pupils, safe for staff and safe for parents.

We have also been very clear that there is a range of other factors and practical implications to consider, including, for example, the availability of staff. We have been explicit that it would not be possible to 'flick a switch' and expect schools to reopen at short notice. It will require planning, and the government will need to work with the profession on this.

Although today's announcement from the government will at least give some short-term relief from speculation, the discussion is bound to begin again as we approach the next review point.

Our statement will remain clear, unambiguous and intentionally broad.

Until we know what the government has in mind and until we know what the science will say at the time the government signals a return, it is unhelpful to pre-empt what it might do or react to speculation. This is because it would simply add to the damaging cycle of commentary and false expectation. As we have seen already, comments can be easily misinterpreted or taken out of context.

That said, I want to assure you that we are well-sighted on the complexities that underpin a return - the "other factors and practical implications" mentioned above.

Below is a list of just a few of the key questions that we will make sure the government is considering:  

  1. What is our level of confidence in the scientific and medical advice relied on by the government for any decisions concerning a return?

  2. Will school teams have access to reliable and timely safety advice as circumstances change?

  3. Is there clarity that social distancing in most school settings is impossible to achieve? If so, have wider social distancing rules been relaxed and to what effect? Are plans appropriate to each phase and setting?

  4. Although the safety of children is always the first thing on the minds of school leaders, it is not just about how the virus is dealt with by the young. Transmission from children to adults, teachers, carers, elderly relatives, is of equal concern. How will a return to school impact on such risks, especially for those with family members in vulnerable categories?

  5. What consideration is the government giving to individual schools' readiness to return? Rota changes and other factors will dictate how many people are available to respond to the expectations of the government. School leaders, teachers and support teams are all subject to the same health concerns, domestic pressures, isolation expectations and caring responsibilities as the rest of society.

  6. What consideration is the government giving to the role of PPE and testing as part of any plan to return to school?

Furthermore, if the government asks school teams to subject themselves to further risk, it will need to assess this accurately and clearly state that. Measures to mitigate those risks should be immediately available to schools.

There are many more considerations, and it is helpful that so many of you are taking the time to tell us of local issues as well as more general concerns. Please keep this up – your concerns directly inform what we say to the government.

We continue to be clear with government across the UK that for any return to be successful, it will need the full support of the profession. You have already stepped up as a front-line public service to support the national response to the crisis. You can be rightly proud of your efforts.

NAHT members will not delay a return when the time is right. You will continue to lead your teams with professionalism, determination and compassion in support of the national effort.

We will continue to make sure that government across the UK understands it must honour your efforts with the appropriate level of support and safety.   

First published 16 April 2020