Plans for the safe and phased return to schools and early years settings

Information provided by Julia Burrows, Director of Public Health, Barnsley and Mel John-Ross, Executive Director, Children's services.

We know that people have lots of questions about the re-opening of schools and early years settings from the 1 June 2020 if they are safe to do so. 

From the start of the pandemic, Barnsley schools have continued to stay open for our vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

Over the coming weeks, our approach, in line with the Government's gradual easing of lockdown measures, is to support schools and early years settings to gradually expand the number of pupils attending in a way that protects the health and wellbeing of both children and staff. 

England is following the rest of the world in gradually phasing and re-opening schools. This is happening across Europe, and in the main, we appear to all be following a similar approach, increasing the number of primary age children attending school in the first instance.

We know children's wellbeing is made better from spending time with their friends and from the social interaction and structure that school provides. We believe that it's important for children to go back to their school or early years setting, to avoid lost learning and the significant impact that this may have on their future outcomes.  

Our priority is to make sure that children and staff are always as safe as possible, and our public health team and school's service will support schools and early years settings. 

National guidance

As part of the government recovery strategy, the Department for Education (DfE)has issued guidance for schools and early years settings to prepare for their wider opening from 1 June 2020, based upon, and subject to, the five key tests set by Government.

The DfE guidance sets out the arrangements for primary schools and to welcome back children in nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6, alongside the priority groups of vulnerable children and those of key workers. 

Secondary schools, sixth form and further education colleges are expected to offer some face-to-face support in addition to the remote education of year 10 and year 12 students who are due to take key exams next year, alongside the full-time provision they are offering to priority groups. The Government are also asking nurseries and other early years providers, including childminders, to begin welcoming back all children.

Information on the safety and risks of children returning to school

Understandably, a key concern for many is how having more children in settings will impact on the transmission of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) virus. 

We know that research is underway across the world to help us understand Coronavirus (COVID-19) better. As these studies continue and findings emerge, the evidence will increase. However, we're living in a world of uncertainty, and all of us are having to learn to deal with risk and make balanced decisions based on imperfect evidence and knowledge.

Having said that, our approach in Barnsley is to base our decisions on the best evidence available at the time, and to follow national guidance.

Ensuring schools and early years settings are safe

We know the Government has assessed its recommendations to increase numbers in school and early years settings against the five national 'tests' published in April 2020:

1. Protect the NHS' ability to cope. To be confident that we are able to provide sufficient critical care and specialist treatment right across the UK.

The NHS in Barnsley has responded exceptionally well to the challenge it's facing, and, to date, the local health system has not been overwhelmed. Critical care and specialist treatment are being provided to those who have needed it. 

2. See a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rates from Coronavirus (COVID-19), so we are confident that we have moved beyond the peak.

Sadly, as of 18 May 2020, there have been 182 deaths registered in Barnsley with a mention of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on the death certificate. 110 of these were in the hospital, and 72 were outside the hospital. Locally we reached the peak of the pandemic in April 2020, and death rates have been falling. No children or young people in Barnsley have died having been diagnosed with Coronavirus (COVID-19).

3. Reliable data from Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) showing that the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels across the board.

Unfortunately, we do not have access to the scientific evidence, modelling, data and information which SAGE are using to inform the decisions being taken at a national level. 

Read DfE's overview of scientific advice and information on coronavirus (COVID-19)  

This shows:

  • There is a high degree of confidence that the severity of disease in children is lower than in adults.
  • There is a moderate to high degree of confidence that the susceptibility to clinical disease of younger children (up to age 11 to 13) is lower than for adults. For older children, there is not enough evidence yet to determine whether susceptibility to disease is different from adults.
  • The susceptibility to infection of younger children (up to age 11 to 13) might be lower than for adults, but the degree of confidence in this is low. For older children, there is not enough evidence yet to determine whether susceptibility to infection is different from adults.
  • There is no evidence to suggest that children transmit the virus any more than adults. Some studies suggest younger children may transmit less, but this evidence is mixed and provides a low degree of confidence at best.

There's an extremely low risk of children becoming seriously unwell if they become infected. 

4. Be confident that the range of operational challenges, including testing capacity and PPE, are in hand, with supply able to meet future demand.

We're supporting schools to develop their risk assessments for this and have also provided advice, guidance and support to make sure they have appropriate levels of PPE.

We're waiting for the launch of the national Contact Tracing Programme. Contact tracing is important as it's about breaking the chain of virus transmission and viral spread. It's not directly about protecting individuals and keeping people safe, though it does have that effect indirectly by limiting transmission of the virus and keeping the number of cases low. 

Barnsley is well placed to respond to this. We can support and expand the national programme locally. Barnsley's public health team has experience of outbreak management and will support Public Health England to help schools/ and early years settings if contact tracing is required. 

Locally, we have an effective testing offer which is increasing its capacity. All adults and children aged five years and above will be able to access testing if they become symptomatic.

5. Be confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelms the NHS.

Locally, we continue to analyse and review the impact of the virus. We do this through robust analysis of a range of different data. This informs our local response and also is shared nationally. 

The R number (the estimated number of people that one person will pass on the virus to on average) has come down across every part of the UK since the start of the pandemic. The R number in the UK is now thought to be between 0.7 and 1.0. 

Our approach in Barnsley

All schools will need to undertake a comprehensive risk assessment, covering staffing levels, building layouts, and other issues that have an impact on safety. Based on these risk assessments, schools will be supported to welcome children back as soon as it is safe, should their parents wish to do so. 

We meet regularly with the Barnsley Schools Alliance Board and school leaders to explore the implications of the Government's guidance and to prepare for the safe, extended school re-opening for the year groups as set out by Government.

We've also been in contact with early years providers to explore the implications for them and how they can best prepare.   

All plans and preparations are being guided and informed by public health guidance, and this extended offer to children will be implemented slowly and gradually.

While there’s a coordinated approach in partnership with the Barnsley Alliance and school leaders, the offer will very much depend on the size and capacity of each building, so schools extended re-opening, the arrangements and the date may vary locally, based upon each school’s own risk assessment. 

It's important to note that many of our schools have been open throughout the pandemic for our vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

How are schools and early years settings approaching their planning?

There's still a lot of work ahead. Schools and early years settings are consulting with parents and carers, and each child's circumstances will be considered. All schools will be following public health measures when they do increase the number of children attending to help reduce virus transmission. The way that children attend will be different from how things worked before. 

Schools are completing risk assessments, and significant and detailed consideration is being given to how children can safely return. 

This includes, for example:

  • the re-integration of children who have now been at home for some time
  • how children will travel to school
  • different school start and finish times
  • working to implement social distancing where possible
  • smaller class sizes (no more than 15 pupils and sometimes less) to form a 'social protective bubble' where children spend time with the same group of children during lessons break and lunch and working where possible with the same members of teaching staff
  • the allocation of teachers and the prevention of staff going from one 'bubble' to another
  • delivering lessons
  • staggering break times and lunchtimes
  • where children will have lunch
  • deep cleaning
  • the equipment that children will use

This preparation and planning build upon the offer that has been made since the very start of the lockdown to vulnerable children and those of key workers, and where we've seen an increased number of children slowly and safely returning to school.

Supporting parent and carers of children who won’t be in school

Schools will continue to provide home learning support for children who won't be in school. 

Under the current government guidance, no parent or carer will be penalised at this time, if they decide not to send their child back to school.

Keep following the public health guidance 

The most important thing is that we use testing and contact tracing alongside other key public health guidance to keep Barnsley safe. 

The public health guidance is still centred around hygiene and social distancing being the key things we can all do to help the NHS and protect lives. These guidelines will help people to avoid getting the virus and stop it from spreading to other people. 

Washing hands regularly - this is the most effective single measure at reducing the spread of the virus. Watch the Government's video on washing your hands properly.

Working together with parents, carers, teachers and trade unions

No one can guarantee that there's no risk. Unfortunately, due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we're all living with the risk of transmission of the virus in many aspects of our lives, and this may be the case for the foreseeable future. 

Our knowledge about the virus will keep expanding, and we'll get better and better at balancing and managing those risks.

In this case, the risk to children's overall and long term wellbeing through disrupting their education and social interaction, and the risk to society by reducing the ability of key workers to work due to lack of childcare must be balanced with the risk of increased virus transmission through gradually extending the opening of schools. 

By working constructively and collaboratively with parents/carers, teachers and trade unions, we believe we can extend our school offer in as safe a way as possible that minimises the risk while making sure that children and young people begin to benefit once more from education, learning and socialising.