Debate rages over when Lancashire's schools should reopen - and who should decide

It will be up to the leaders and governing bodies of Lancashire’s primary schools to decide for themselves whether they should reopen to some of their pupils at the start of next month.

By Paul Faulkner and Sonja Astbury
Wednesday, 20th May 2020, 11:09 am

Lancashire County Council says that individual headteachers are “best placed” to decide whether they can meet a government aim for children in reception and years one and six to return to the classroom from 1st June.

The Department for Education has said that those pupils should be welcomed back through the school gates if the government’s five tests for gradually lifting broader coronavirus lockdown restrictions are being met at the time.

But a political row is brewing in Lancashire over whether County Hall should take a definitive position about the wisdom of the planned return.

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Schools in Lancashire have been shut since 20th March

Some other local authorities have already said that they will not support the move, because they are concerned that it is premature and increases the risk of children contracting and spreading Covid-19.

County Cllr Phillippa Williamson, the Conservative cabinet member for schools, said that Lancashire County Council had been working with headteachers and unions to consider the implications of the government guidance.

“Ensuring that the conditions are right for more children to be in school, and that a careful phased approach is in place, is crucial.

“In Lancashire, we have a range of schools that are governed under different relevant bodies, and headteachers who decide on a school-by-school basis what the right decision is for their school, in consultation with governors.

County Hall says school leaders and governing bodies are "best placed" to decide about reopening dates

“We know that they are best-placed to be able to make individual choices based on the circumstances of their schools - the decision to allow more children to return to their school lies with them. We will support schools in the decisions they make.

"We are monitoring the situation closely and we will issue public health advice, both generally to schools, and individually to inform their decision-making,” said County Cllr Williamson, who also thanked Lancashire's schools for offering places during the lockdown to the children of key workers and vulnerbale families.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) understands that arrangements for the local management of schools means that County Hall could not impose a decision on any of the more than 500 primaries in Lancashire about whether or not to reopen. Some faith schools and the small number of primary academies in the county also have additional freedoms.

But Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali has written to Lancashire County Council’s chief executive demanding that the authority at least sets out where it stands on the issue – and warning that the county’s schools should stay shut until five tests drawn up by the National Education Union have been fulfilled.

“It’s not good enough to leave it up to schools - that’s irresponsible,” County Cllr Ali told the LDRS.

“I wouldn’t send my child back to school until I was assured that it was safe – and at this moment in time, nobody can prove that it’s safe. It’s alright the government saying that we’ll have proper testing, but we’ve seen the chaos [over testing] in care homes.

“I fear that we haven’t learned the lessons from what happened there and that we could end up with a second wave. We’ve got to make sure that the infection rate is very low, because at the moment it’s quite high.

“The government is also giving out mixed messages – telling parents that they won’t be fined if they don’t send their children in, but then telling schools that they should open," County Cllr Ali added.

County council leader Geoff Driver acknowledged that the debate was a “very sensitive issue, involving difficult decisions for schools and parents”.

But he added: “We are working closely with the schools and it is particularly disappointing at this time that, yet again, some county councillors appear to be seeking to score political points and thereby adding to the concerns that parents quite understandably have.

“I stress, no schools will reopen or take in more pupils unless it is safe to do so."

The government announced on Monday that testing is to be made available for anybody over the age of five who is displaying coronavirus symptoms.

Meanwhile, the five government tests for the next phase of lockdown-lifting in June – which includes the partial reopening of schools – remain: that the NHS has sufficient intensive care capacity for coronavirus patients; that there is a “sustained and consistent” fall in daily deaths from Covid-19; that the rate of infection has decreased to “manageable levels”; that demand for personal protective equipment and coronavirus testing can be met; and that any changes would not risk causing a second peak in infections which could overwhelm the NHS.

The five tests outlined by the National Education Union, which it says must also be met before it supports the reopening of schools, are: “much lower” new cases of Covid; a national plan for appropriate levels of social distancing in schools; “comprehensive access” to testing for pupils and staff so that schools do not become coronavirus hotspots; a strategy for what to do in the event of a case being identified amongst a member of the school community; and protection for vulnerable staff and those staff and pupils who live with vulnerable people.

The government has advised schools to limit the amount of contact between different groups of children by implementing smaller class sizes, ensure increased cleaning and encourage good hand and respiratory hygiene.

Department for Education advice also states that: “There is high scientific confidence that children of all ages have less severe symptoms than adults if they contract coronavirus and there is moderately high scientific confidence that younger children are less likely to become unwell if infected with coronavirus.”

WHAT SCHOOLS ARE SAYING

Several schools contacted by the LDRS suggested that parental opinion should play a part in deciding when to reopen - as well as each school’s own circumstances.

Annalisa Howarth, Headteacher at English Martyrs’ Catholic Primary in Preston, said she welcomed having autonomy over whether her school should invite some children back to class – and will be affording the same choice to parents.

“I’m glad to be able to make the decision based on what’s right for the whole school community – as well as on issues such as staff availability.

“I’m preparing with my governing board so that we can reopen on 1st June, but we’re going to look at the guidance at the time and see what’s manageable in our school.

“I have phoned all the parents and got a picture of who is wanting to return – and I fully support whatever decision they make, because it’s not my place to judge.

“I do think that all the talk in the press that teachers are somehow lazy and don’t want to come back is an insult,” added Mrs. Howarth, whose school has been one of the many which have remained open for the children of key workers and those considered vulnerable.

She admitted that social distancing even with a small number of children had been “a battle”.

Less than a mile away at Eldon Primary School, headteacher Azra Butt has also been seeking opinions about a possible reopening – with separate surveys going out to parents, staff and the pupils themselves.

She is awaiting the final results, but said that parents are “highly sceptical” about a return whilst local infection rates are at current levels and that staff are also "anxious”.

Ms. Butt added: “I will risk assess for a time when it is right for our school to open to some pupils, ensuring safety for all.

"A timetable of potential activities is being put together, with a chunk of time being spent outside – both for wellbeing and because it is deemed to be a safer space for learning. With our outdoor TV screen, we are planning lots of activities - including exercising and singing – and our forest school sessions will be expended to five days.

“Signage is being ordered for the walls and floors and we were already staggering drop-offs and pick-ups before the lockdown - and this worked well for us.”

At Tarleton Community Primary, headteacher Chris Upton said that he was considering whether “traditional rites of passage” would be able to go ahead for year 6 pupils – such as a leaving assembly before they head off to secondary school in September.

He added that a wider plan about reopening would be shared with parents as soon as it had received approval from school governors.

"Schools are desperately trying to be ready for 1st June, but they must look at their unique circumstances and ask that ultimate question - with the information I have now, with the confines of my building and staff available to me, is it safe or even possible to open?

“If it is not, then they shouldn't open.

“The overwhelming view currently from staff and parents is that it is too soon, as the North West lags London in terms of infection rates,” Mr. Upton said.

Helen Wright, who leads St Stephens's Church of England Primary in Preston, echoed the call for each school to come to its own conclusions.

“We are challenged by the task ahead – and each plan will differ in each school,” she said.