New Issues in Opening Our Schools Safely

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 26 August 2020
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Coronavirus; Education

One of the things we have become accustomed to during the lockdown and particularly during the gradual easing of restrictions has been the intense media/public scrutiny of measures implemented by government and public bodies. Schools will no doubt be aware of this pressure as they carefully put in place the required measures.  ASCL Business Leadership Specialist Hayley Dunn has just published some excellent observations and advice for school leaders which goes beyond the strict “letter of the law”.

She begins with the obvious practical changes which must be implemented including fundamental changes to daily school timetables to ensure minimal mixing and contact, fewer extra-curricular activities, ensuring a safe journey to school, restricting general movement around the school campus and rigorous cleaning.  While most of these logistical arrangements are covered in Department of Education/government guidance, there are lots of other measures which are within the discrete control and remit of school leaders and ASCL’s advice on these is both clear and practical. 

The advice argues that getting the communication to staff, pupils and parents right is perhaps the most important starting point. Some principals have sent video messages to parents and pupils by social media in advance of reopening and this has been effective. This enables them to show and demonstrate safety measures without risk of misunderstanding or encountering language barriers issues which might potentially exclude some groups.

While all these measures will be important, Hayley Dunn focuses also on the hidden challenges in managing this new circumstance such as fear, anxiety, and worry among staff, parents, and pupils themselves. Her advice blog argues powerfully that this means that school leaders will need to find ways to overcome these anxieties and fears to ensure that staff, parents, and pupils feel reassured when returning to school. They therefore recommend:

  • following government guidance
  • following statutory requirements
  • consulting with staff, listening, being transparent and giving clear rationale
  • updating or creating temporary policies and clear guidance
  • ensuring your practices are inclusive and accommodate specific needs 

More here:

The thorny issue of risk assessments for vulnerable pupils and staff was raised on Radio Ulster’s Nolan show this week. The problem being that school principals are not medically qualified to fully complete these health and safety risk assessments.  What emerged from the debate is that all that can be done of course is to follow the public health guidance on shielding but mainly to rely on the person’s GP to advise them regarding exposure to risk, with schools doing all they can to make the campus safe.

The mandatory wearing of face masks in schools has been thoroughly debated and thankfully we are again following the good example of Scotland and the Republic of Ireland where the decisions were taken with much less fuss.

“Scottish secondary school pupils will have to wear face coverings in corridors, communal areas and school buses from next Monday.  Education Secretary John Swinney said the new guidance would apply to all pupils aged over 12. He said the guidance would be updated based on new advice from the World Health Organization (WHO). There will no requirement to wear face coverings in classrooms where social distancing measures are in place.”

More from the BBC:

In the Republic of Ireland on the government’s “back to school helpline”; the position there is clear too:

“Cloth face coverings help prevent transmission of the COVID-19 virus from the wearer to those they come into close contact with. Therefore teachers and other staff in primary schools are required to wear a face covering when a physical distance of 2 metres from other staff and children cannot be maintained, but public health advice does not recommend the wearing of face coverings for primary school children.”

For the post primary sector, it is different:

“Teachers and other staff and students attending post primary schools are required to wear a face covering when a physical distance of 2 metres from other staff and students cannot be maintained.

In terms of staff moving around schools again the advice is simple and clear and underpinned by the provision of extra staff.

“The department has provided additional staffing resources which will help to minimise the movement of staff within and between schools. It is recognized that there will continue to be movement of staff between schools albeit perhaps at a reduced level.”

More here:

In addition to these and other measures the Minister for Education Norma Foley TD has also signalled adjustments to the examination series planned for 2021;

.....update for incoming third year and sixth year students who will be taking state examinations in summer 2021. The documentation being published today sets out the adjusted assessment arrangements for these post-primary students. These arrangements are designed to take account of the disrupted learning experienced by these students during the 2019/20 school year.”

More here:

Here too CCEA has followed suit and announced cutbacks in the examinations pupils will sit in 2021 and this will be welcomed by schools who have been calling urgently for this.

“CCEA has published proposals to reduce what has to be taught in many GCSE subjects in the 2020/21 school year but has said public exams should take place again next summer. 28 GCSEs in all will have elements of courses cut. GCSE courses in English language and maths however - which are regarded as core qualifications will not be changed.”

More here:

Equally the release of funds from Minister Peter Weir on August 24th will be also be welcomed. As we have discussed in this column during recent months, addressing the learning gaps and widening disadvantage to many children will require extra staffing.

“The package includes: £17.5million towards the cost of substitute teachers and other school expenditure; £6.4million for PPE; £5million for school wellbeing initiatives; £3.1million for home to school transport; and £1.4million to support special educational needs.”

As always in school management, monitoring through regular checks to ensure that procedures and measures are working as expected is essential as is keeping a written record of measures taken and monitoring systems in operation.

Our schools in Northern Ireland have long rightly prided themselves on having a tangible ethos which is collectively understood and made real every day by entire school communities. ASCL’s advice puts it perfectly when they recommend now prioritising a health and safety element:

“Creating a positive culture of safety in your school should come naturally and will ensure you have an environment that is safer, a happier workforce who are hopefully less anxious, and ultimately provide as positive an experience as possible for the children and young people returning to school or college in these most difficult and challenging of times.”


This article is correct at 04/11/2020

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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