Call for clearer guidance for staff and pupils still in school

By Alison Kershaw, PA

Schools need to know if they should be taking safety measures such as providing masks and protective equipment, or distancing children in class, head teachers have said.

Clearer guidance is need on how to keep pupils and staff who are in school during the coronavirus outbreak safe, according to the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).

It said school leaders are “crying out” for expert medical evidence on safe levels of attendance and proper safety measures.

The call came as schools opened their gates for vulnerable youngsters and the children of key workers such as medics, police and delivery drivers.

There had been concerns that many more children than expected would turn up for lessons on Monday morning, despite schools in England being officially closed.

However, school leaders said the numbers were “manageable”, with indications that parents were keeping their children at home unless they had no other option.

As schools work out how to operate, one of the key concerns is how to keep children and school staff safe when they are on site.

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said: “What schools desperately need now is clear guidance on how to keep the pupils and staff that continue to attend school safe.

“School leaders are crying out for sight of the expert medical evidence on safe levels of attendance and density, and want practical advice on protective steps they should be taking in schools.

“From masks or other PPE (personal protective equipment), to distancing children from each other, to sufficient supplies of soap and hand sanitiser, schools urgently need answers to their questions about effective safety measures.

“We also need the Government to provide further guidance for special schools and those providing alternative provision as we know many of these are currently open to a higher percentage of pupils.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said the biggest concern is “the health and wellbeing of staff and pupils who are attending schools”.

“Schools are actively managing this situation by ensuring social distancing, reinforcing messages about washing hands regularly, and ensuring that areas which are being used are regularly cleaned.”

Earlier, Mr Barton thanked parents for heeding advice to only use schools if absolutely necessary.

“Schools are reporting that the number of pupils arriving is manageable,” he said. “We are grateful to parents for their understanding.”

A snapshot survey of 670 schools, mainly secondary, shows that in most cases, fewer than 10% of pupils were in school today.

ASCL, which conducted the poll, said that in 86% of schools, the percentage of pupils attending lessons was between 1% and 5%.

Most of the schools were in England (94%), with the rest in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Rachael Warwick, executive head of the Ridgeway Education Trust, which runs two secondaries and a primary in Oxfordshire, said officials are being vigilant about health and safety.

Jewellery is banned and hair must be tied back, she said, and children are being spaced apart in classes.

Ms Warwick told the PA news agency that school leaders are “grateful for the advice that’s coming, but we would like it to continue”.

She added that there may quickly be good practice guidelines that can be shared among schools on how to protect staff and students.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Early indications are that the number of children attending school today is low, and we thank parents for making the right choice and playing their part in our fight against coronavirus. People must do everything they can to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.

“We are closely monitoring the situation on the ground and will continue to work with local authorities to ensure schools get the help and support they need over the challenging weeks and months ahead.”