This blog is an abridged version of an article that was published in SecEd Magazine in the early hours of Thursday 19 March in the immediate aftermath of the Education Secretary’s decision to close schools in response to the coronavirus.
On Wednesday (March 18) it was confirmed that schools in England, Scotland and Wales are to close on Friday (March 20). In Northern Ireland, schools will close from Monday (March 23).
Education secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that schools will remain open only for the children of key workers, including NHS staff, emergency service workers and delivery staff, and for vulnerable pupils and those with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs). The devolved governments will be implementing similar plans (for our report, see here).
The government’s Chief Medical Officer has said that COVID-19 is not akin to the seasonal flu, as previously suggested, and as such the pandemic is unlikely to subside in the spring and summer months. Schools will be disrupted for months and possibly longer. Indeed, Scotland’s first minister has said we should not expect schools to re-open before the summer.
Schools are doing all they can to help their staff and students and to support their communities. There is no right or wrong answer, only our best guesses. And context really does matter. Now is not the time to criticise their actions, or indeed inaction; we need to stand together and help each other through this.
Continuation of learning
One priority as schools close their doors will be ensuring that education continues in some form. To this end, many schools have prepared learning packs for their students to take home or are providing access to online learning platforms, including the provision of remote teaching.
In the coming days, I will be offering advice on how to make a success of remote learning, but schools must think hard about how to reach those families who do not have internet, email or the digital resources needed to access online learning.
In the meantime, schools will undoubtedly have plans in place and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has published useful guidance that offers a solid starting point for schools: “Provide clear expectations to families and staff of what work will be carried out. For staff, consider any additional infrastructure, equipment and advice needed for those adjusting to home working, i.e. appropriate working hours and use of equipment, log-in details and remote access. For pupils, check what equipment they have access to at home and consider how to support those who are unable to access digital resources.”
Home or away?
Another urgent consideration as schools close is whether all staff will work from home or whether some will still come into school. Can those teaching staff who will work from home do so effectively? Will they have the resources they need? Will they have children of their own in need of childcare?
What about support staff? The school site will still require cleaners and catering staff, and caretaking staff. And what about administration staff? Office staff often handle frontline communications with parents/carers, the community and other external stakeholders and agencies. Will they still be needed on site? Or can they work remotely? Will all support staff, irrespective of the nature of their contracts, continue to paid and protected?
To begin with, from Monday, all schools will need to maintain some staffing presence on site as the children of key workers, vulnerable pupils and those with EHCPs are being told to attend as normal. Provision will then be rationalised on an area-by-area basis so that not every school needs to keep its gates open.
Going forward, schools will need to consider which staff might need to remain on site and if so there will be considerations about which staff to retain, what to do with staff working from home, the impact on pay and conditions, what childcare arrangements will look like in school, the safeguarding of students kept in school, maintaining the safety of the school site and so on.
A key issue for teachers working online and from their homes is safeguarding. The ASCL guidance offers this advice: “Remind staff and students of vital principles such as avoiding one-to-one tutoring or messaging unless this is pre-approved and auditable.”
ASCL also advises that schools should consider alternative arrangements for raising safeguarding concerns, such as a hotline number. You will need to consider what to do in the case that all designated safeguarding leads are ill or unavailable. It adds: “Schools may have limited communication methods with pupils but remind staff not to share their personal phone numbers or contact details.”
We shall, equally, be looking to the government for further guidance as to how schools can be supported to fulfil their safeguarding duties.
SEND and vulnerable learners
We know now that some schools will stay open for students with EHCPs and for vulnerable students. However, not all SEND pupils have an EHCP so remember that some students with additional and different needs may still be working from home and our online teaching might need to reflect this.
The ASCL guidance states: “When making decisions about how and if schools will be able to deliver education to students during the period of closure, schools must take into consideration any reasonable adjustments it could make to enable students with disabilities to access those arrangements.”
For vulnerable learners, ASCL adds: “Consider how families experiencing extreme financial hardship will access the hardship fund at your school or local authority. Some schools are considering a central base for food distribution for those who won’t have access to food bank vouchers.”
Again, we will be looking to government for support on delivering free school meals funding to eligible families and Mr Williamson has said that a national voucher scheme will be put in place.
Other issues to consider include, according to ASCL work packs for pupils who don’t have access to technology, hotline numbers shared with most vulnerable families where they can get support and a phone line for school support.
Finance and governance
The National Governance Association (NGA) says that governing bodies will need to put in place arrangements to meet remotely, consider their levels of delegation so that fewer governors/trustees can make decisions, and decide their approach to chair’s action.
Guidance from the NGA adds: “It is more important than ever that those governing and working in schools and trusts communicate well and support each other. As well as maintaining the dialogue over current issues and the response, supportive messaging to staff and stakeholders will also be appreciated, especially by school leaders who are under a great deal of pressure.”
ASCL, meanwhile, recommends that schools keep a record and evidence of all additional costs and losses incurred due to the coronavirus.