A seven-step plan to reopen schools

14 Apr 2020, 17:13

Despite the inexorable tragedy of the daily death toll and the awful misery that COVID-19 brings, the sacrifices of our essential workers and our wider country are beginning to ‘flatten the curve’. Now is the time to think about how and when we can start to open up the country and lift the restrictions on our lives. Effective forward planning is essential.

Schools are at the forefront of the civic response during the present lockdown: looking after the children of essential workers, feeding vulnerable families and supporting parents and carers with home learning on an unprecedented and unanticipated scale. And over the coming weeks, schools must also be at the forefront of our emergence as a nation from the nightmare of COVID-19. They will have a fundamental role to play. They will allow parents to return to work and businesses across the country to wake from their necessary hibernation.

Here’s how we open our schools safely.


1. Set the date for schools to reopen

Confirmation of a date will of course be subject to medical advice – but having a date in mind is essential. This could either be in mid-May or immediately after May half-term.

There are encouraging signs that the rates of infections and hospital admissions are slowing. Once we have passed the peak of infection and assessed the impact of lockdown measures on disease transmission, we should be in a position to start opening schools.

Setting a date will provide a clear sense of purpose and avoid the confusion and distraction of endless speculation. People will be more likely to maintain compliance with social distancing measures if there is an end point in sight.


2. Start by capping school capacity at 50%

To enable social distancing, and to manage practicalities, we should aim for schools to re-open, initially for around half their population at any one time.

It may well be that the Government wants to advise on prioritisation, for example focusing on key sectors or locations. If not, headteachers should decide who should be prioritised, depending on context.

A cap on the number of pupils attending will enable staff to self-isolate where they or their family members show symptoms of coronavirus. It will also support the steady reintegration of pupils.

The steps would signal our country is once again ‘open for business’

As restrictions are eased further over the summer, schools may be able to re-open fully in September, but we need to be prepared for cycles of restriction and lockdown within the new academic year.

We should also make contingency plans for summer school provision for vulnerable pupils and children of key workers, should additional restrictions be required again in July and August.


3. Invest in safety equipment to limit spread of COVID-19  

By undertaking daily temperature checks of all pupils and staff as they enter the site, schools can identify anyone who may be infected and send them home. This measure is achievable if reduced numbers of pupils are attending school and entry times are staggered.

We need to fund schools to invest in hand sanitisers, to be used, at a minimum, every time anyone enters or leaves the building. We should also provide enhanced levels of cleaning and PPE equipment as needed – particularly for staff who are delivering physical care for pupils. The diligent application of hygiene routines is the single most effective way to minimise the spread of disease.


4. Stagger opening times and avoid assemblies

To minimise the possibility of a second wave of infection the country will need to maintain some degree of social distancing for the foreseeable future.

To achieve this, schools will need to consider staggering opening hours as well as lunch and break times.

Large gatherings such as assemblies should be avoided. Classes could be reorganised within the available school space to enable everyone to keep a safe distance apart.


5. Set up testing hubs in local communities

As a pre-requisite to easing the lockdown, we need to be certain that interventions are in place to prevent a resurgence of infection.

Along with other essential workers, school staff should be prioritised for testing. This testing must yield quick and accurate results to show whether an individual is infected.

Staff will also require antibody tests that confirm whether they have already had COVID-19, and may therefore be presumed to have a measure of immunity.

The eventual availability of home-testing kits and the coronavirus contact tracing app will be critical to the full re-opening of the country.


6. Vulnerable staff and pupils must still be shielded

Lives are precious and must not be jeopardised. Children and staff who are vulnerable because of illness should continue to be shielded from infection through self-isolation at home until health experts advise that they can return.

Lives are precious and must not be jeopardised

Anyone living with or visiting a vulnerable person should exercise rigorous social distancing and have regular testing to ensure they are free from the virus. Antibody testing will confirm whether they are immune.


7. Boost mental health support for pupils and staff

Physical and social confinement are taking their toll on the mental health of children and adults alike. Calls to charities offering support for depression, anxiety and domestic abuse have risen sharply during lockdown.

Return to school needs to be accompanied by greater availability of counselling support for the school community.


This plan could form part of a coherent strategy for the country to emerge from COVID-19 and adapt to a ‘new normal’.

The seven key steps would allow parents to return to work and signal that our country is once again ‘open for business’. They will enable us to fight coronavirus by following the scientific advice that continues to guide Government thinking, balanced with necessary concern for the socio-economic well-being of our country.

The road towards a new normal is likely to be long and uneven: planning the journey well is essential.



Your thoughts

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  1. Phil Sharp

    Mr Patel, do you know something the government doesn’t by suggesting Mid May is the time to re-open schools?

    MAT CEOs are getting twitchy at the thought of their staff sat at home on full pay methinks!

    • Stephen Melton

      How do you effect social distancing with children? What you propose is nonsense. If staff and students go back to work at your academy some will die ( 3.5% )this could be staff or students or both. Stop towing the Government line and protect your staff and students by keeping closed.

  2. This would not work, firstly staff are stressed and worried at the moment about catching the virus. Some schools are open and at Easter and some staff are working from home and some are in school(admin) but don’t usually work holidays, they won’t get this back, teachers get paid for holidays and social distancing isn’t happening putting mental pressure on staff that are doing it. There’s not enough room in a school to separate the children. I think staff need a break too from the mental health pressure and worries they have at home especially if looking after elderly parents. Staff who don’t work holidays surely they deserve to have there summer holidays prepare themselves mentally and spend time with family who they haven’t been able to be with. I can’t see staff taking temperatures of staff and children either, It’s hard to get some children in. I think May is way too early for schools to open and many think the same even parents have said they wouldn’t send their children in May. Wouldn’t September be better to introduce children back into the setting gradually.

  3. Viv Hamilton

    My response to this article is one of sheer horror. In the school I work in, there are 720 pupils. We could round this to 600 as Y11 will not be back. This means that there are 600 pupils sharing around 20 toilets, about 32 classrooms, 1 dining facility, 4 staircases. It will be impossible to not share resources such as text books, computers? How is cleaning between classes going to happen? How are we going to socially distance within school?What about the pupils who don’t even have enough money to bring a pen to school? or the correct uniform – there isn’t time to wash it thoroughly each evening before pupils return to school the following day. How do we keep control of pupils keeping them 2m apart when clearly pupils will be using the same desks and chairs as other pupils later in the day. As for doing science experiment, cooking, sewing, art classes, design technology, music where pupils are expected to share equipment – how is this going to work? How about socially distanced PE lessons – football won’t be a lot of fun unless you can tackle, there isn’t enough equipment for everyone to have their own.

    Until there are solid rules which have got the correct equipment in place – it is safer at home. for everyone. Not just the staff, the children, the families of those children. For me – my child would be much safer at home until schools can guarantee to keep social distancing rules – as exposing my child to this virus exposes my vulnerable parents to to disease as we live in a 3 generation household. Is my child really in anyway expected to carry the burden that she has brought the killer virus to other family members for the rest of her life because she was forced back to school by people who have little knowledge (or qualifications) in microbiology or public health? The government, led by scientific advice, which is being given by WHO (who are the experts in public health) need to be in control of when schools reopen and I do wish that the public (including CEOs of educational organisations and journalists) would leave them to do their job. The job that they are paid to do after taking advice from correctly qualified people. We can all see a need for schools to open again – but not until it is safe to do so. To do so early and cause any premature death of any pupil, staff member or vulnerable member of any of their families would amount to manslaughter by the authorities who allowed this.

  4. Viv Hamilton


    I think that Mr Patel should actually do the job he is paid for and get his own MAT in order before telling the UK how to reopen schools, clearly without any level of scientific or public health qualification. Clearly whilst one of his schools is currently rated as inadequate (and the worst ofsted report I have ever read), and his only way of filling this school for Y7 this year was to offer free Summer Schools, free computers, free uniform and sports kit and stationery to new Y7 pupils starting in September as clearly the school in question can’t attract pupils by any other means – I think he should look at keeping his advice within his own academy trust and let those people who do know about diseases and public health make the right decisions at the right time without coming under any pressure from journalists or any other interfering know-it-alls.

  5. Peter Slough

    Oh shut up you absolute stooge Patel. I second the comment above – just because you are unhappy with your staff getting paid being at home, don’t try and use the guise of mental health and ‘socio economics’ as your shield.

    Your success with running your MAT makes you a qualified and astute educationalist, but it doesn’t make you are the moral barometer for all school decision making.

    Firstly, prevention is better than cure. We need to wait until this all blows over as other countries are, until it is unequivocally safe to do so – before making the decision to reopen schools as this single preventative measure makes more logical sense than ignorantly opening it and treating young people and teachers like cannon fodder.

    The ‘science’ you speak of, is at this time subjective and somewhat unreliable i.e. herd immunity, therefore we can’t be so drastic as reopening at this tender stage will cause anarchy IF the situation with Covid worsens.

    Lastly, what you propose in your ‘staggered’ reopening of schools, causes unnecessary complications. Schools should be open, or closed – simple. Not both.

    You are playing with lives here. The sensible thing to do would be to wait until it is SAFE to do so. Not a matter of IF it is safe, but WHEN it is safe.

    Please don’t hide behind false dichotomies, when it is clear you have a vested interest in reopening schools for your own monetary gain.

    Lives of our people are more important than making you seem like a trailblazer-guru-educationalist-policy influencer (or whatever fame you are trying to attain from your passive lobbying here).

    Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.

    • Wow. Whilst some comments raise important points, others have a hint of the ‘green eyed monster’ from an ex-head who should know better than to resort to jealous spite.

  6. Witheld

    This is the most dangerous speculation I have ever read. No-one is in a position to guess that things will be safe enough in six weeks time. There isn’t enough PPE for frontline healthcare staff, so it is unlikely there will be any for school staff. I could gone on, but I won’t.

  7. Carl Smith

    I am afraid this is completely unworkable. A class of 30 needs a room of 60m square to allow for 2m social distancing. Many schools have narrow corridors so that even with 50% attendance it is inevitable that crowds of adults and children will develop at certain times.
    An average secondary school has 900 students, so that’d mean taking the temperature of 450 of them on entry and departure, presumably in some kind of queuing system, which would take an hour or two to complete.
    Staff would die as a result, and probably children as well.
    Setting a date for reopening is absolutely not what staff and children need right now. Instead, they need support and reassurance, not plans likely to send anxiety into overdrive.

  8. Tsveta Krusteva

    How is this temperature taking going to happen in real life? My child’s school is 2000 pupils! 1000 temperatures taken in the morning?? Where is the queue going to start and continue all around the roads?Mr Patel, have been reading lots of science fiction lately or are you going to use “thoughts and prayers “ to save teachers form dying? Even nurses and doctors with protection clothing get infected.

    • Shaheena mugal

      Its so unrealistic what Mr Patel is suggesting. Taking a Temperature of children looking after them. Social distancing while teaching 20- 30 children in a class. Whoever said Mr Patel has been too many American sci-fi movies during lockdown.

  9. S. Murphy

    I am confused. There was a public outcry at schools NOT being closed when this began, now schools seem to be some sort of scapegoat and test at being opened again.
    I have worked out if I have social distancing in my classroom then I can have 5 children in my classroom – 5. This is not practical and children will still lose out on social interaction and education.
    How are staff to be supplied with PPE if the frontline NHS are struggling?
    How do you maintain social distancing of parents at the gates and in playgrounds?
    Staggered start times, playtimes, lunchtimes all impacts further on the school day and as a result on children.
    Testing temperatures – that’s another hour at least.
    My school already had a number of these strategies in place before schools closed to the majority of children (note- schools are NOT closed) , the children were anxious, uneasy and frightened because of all they heard in the media.
    I agree we need a strategy but please , until children are allowed to play in parks and wide open spaces it is not appropriate to have children and staff (please remember staff) in the often closed, cramped spaces that are our schools.

  10. Caroline Humphries

    Anyone who works in a school or nursery knows that social distancing is not practical. Even with only 50% of the pupils in. What is being suggested will put pupils and school staff at serious risk. We could be the ones who pay the ultimate price!

  11. Ambrose Mui

    That is a impossible plan for boarding school
    Boarding school should have separate guideline to day school because a lot of children tend to live far away from school which would encourage a lot of travel and also international students returning to the uk would start a second wave , and a boarding school is a large crowd from all around the country, it’s hard to do social distancing in doremorory and sports field, its impossible for boarding schools to be back open the same time as day school

  12. Jame Looker

    There is no evidence that people are immune to the virus once you have had it. I’m glad I don’t work for this MAT who appear to have no regard for staff wellbeing or safety.

  13. I am becoming more and more scared by the constant talk of reopening schools. I work in an office with 5 other staff members, most of us are over 50. We have to do first aid and have a constant stream of teachers, students and visitors coming in on a daily basis. How are we going to socially distance. Lessons are continuing at home on line with staff still working hard and they need some recognition for this. We are also open for key workers children with staff on a limited rota basis.

    I hope the Government and experts think very carefully about doing this and make the decision now to not reopen until September as long as it safe to do so.

  14. Mr. Patel,
    Thank goodness I don’t work in your MAT, but I want to say to you what I would want to say to our MAT CEO if they were proposing such tosh (and if your staff have read this then I expect a large number of them will be wishing they could say this to you) and that is that if you truly believe that this is a viable plan then please be our guest to step out of your six figure a year salary bought ivory tower (lockdown bunker?) and be the first one to get into a classroom with these children.
    All age ranges and environments give cause for great concern. Perhaps you’d like to be in with the four and five year olds who will run up to you, cough in your face and slip their suspiciously wet hand into yours? Or maybe you’d like to be amongst the teenagers who, virus or not, seem incapable of keeping their hands off each other, or indeed washing those hands before touching each other?
    It doesn’t seem to have factored into your plan (I do feel like I’m being generous to call it thus) that children are as susceptible to catching this virus as adults, and just as capable of transmitting it to others. Though, as symptoms in children are often milder, cases are much harder to spot and therefore cases harder to trace and isolate. That’s potentially a great deal of transmission to other students and school staff, who will then take the virus home to their families, who will then take the virus into their work places (as people are contagious prior to the exhibition of symptoms) and so on and so forth.
    The purpose of a school is to care for, educate, and support the development of children and young people. If this enables parents to work then that is a fortunate benefit, but the purpose of schools is not to provide a childcare provision so that parents can go to work. If this government would like this to be the aim of schools then OFSTED, exams, league tables and baseline testing should no longer exist. If the government maintain that schools are educational institutions then they must be treated as such as opposed to the foolhardy quick fix ‘return to normality’ plan that (unqualified) people such as yourself are proposing.

  15. G Fraser

    This situation has highlighted the huge disparities across schools and the gaping inconsistencies in relation to provision, resources and overall experience. It has also highlighted the pointless and redundant, even ludicrous accountability measures enforced on schools regardless of context and the impact of disparities mentioned above. Surely, it will also expose CEO salaries and question the validity of these roles in enabling school improvement. Surely this model has had its day….

    I continue to be proud (relieved) to be in a single academy trust – and staying that way. Every penny of our budget is spent on children and giving them the best possible experience in their short time with us; not on lining pockets of those who dispense advice that is unfounded at best and dangerous at worst.

  16. Wow. Whilst some comments raise important points, others have a hint of the ‘green eyed monster’ from ex head/s who should know better than to resort to jealous spite.

  17. Wow. Whilst some comments raise important points, others have a hint of the ‘green eyed monster’ from ex head/s who should know better than to resort to jealous spite.

  18. Cathie Burgess

    This is a scarily ignorant article which completely ignores the realities of life in school. As many people have said above, social distancing in school is not possible! What about the fact that our pupils sit next to one another in classrooms, walk around the building from one class to another, sit at the same desks as other pupils have sat at? what about when we need to explain why they got an answer wrong so we sit next to them to take them through it step by step? or the young person who cries because their family member has just died – do we stay two metres away saying ‘there, there, I sympathise’. Get real! Teaching is, and always will be, a profession that brings us into close physical proximity to our students, and them to their peers. It is actually preferable to me to be supplying resources online, in a way that lets me have individual conversations via internet with most of them (and by phone with those who do not), to have them safe and supported and to feel safe myself. Did you never hear of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? You cannot learn if you do not feel safe. You cannot do your best if you feel threatened or scared. Simply put, how much learning do you think would be happening in a school where all routine has gone out of the window, where their school day has started with testing for COVID 19, where there are reduced staff numbers (and student numbers), where all normality has been suspended? Clearly been written by someone who needs to spend more time developing an understanding of what our education system is actually about.

  19. C Eyre

    You clearly have very little experience of young children. I am responsible for the Early years teachers and staff at my school, that includes our Nursery. To work with young children you have to be approachable, nurturing, warm and comforting., many are leaving their parents for the first time. We expect a lot of regression in the ones that are already familiar with our setting. I won’t go into the amounts of times we need to touch children for one reason or another. I love to find solutions to problems but as most of us suffer chest infections annually picked up from these young children I cannot think of a way in which to reintroduce them to school safely for all until we have a vaccine. It is impossible whilst we need to socially distance ourselves. At this age children mixing with others for the first time naturally pick up and pass on a huge number of viruses and bacterial infections. This is how they build up their own immunities, whilst their bodies are young and strong to deal with it. Even then some get incredibly ill. This is normality. To throw Coronavirus into this mix would be disastrous for too many for it to even be considered.

  20. I’m now genuinely curious… How do you become Chief Executive at an Academies Trust if you have never set foot in a school or met an actual child in your entire life? It is clear from the comments made in the “Opinion” piece that this is the case!

  21. Carrie

    I’m a teaching assistant of children with SEN and although I feel for the children not being in school, I am scared for their health and for all school staff. Our school has no ppe, despite being partially open. There’s no social distancing as pupils don’t understand it, they also sneeze and cough and wipe saliva on everything, they can’t help it. They require a high level of close contact for feeds, meds, toileting. I have cancer and emphysema and despite being in the vulnerable category, (like the pupils) I am deeply worried about being told to go back to work. Do schools not have to supply ppe for staff? I suppose why would they, when hospital staff don’t get any. This doesn’t lift my spirits as to how key workers frankly seem to be disposable.

  22. Joanne

    I work in a primary school and have grave concerns with the reopening of schools. The government ministers and scientific advisors have no idea what it is like with children aged 4 upwards in a classroom. The amount of viruses which are spread to other children and staff so easily. Covid 19 is a dangerous virus that has no mercy on young or old. Would they provide all staff with PPE? The answer is no obviously as they can’t provide the front line nhs staff so schools have no chance. Would a member of the government be sent to the Yemen or some other dangerous country without some sort of protection ? No they wouldn’t so why do they expect frontline staff to do their job without it. Herd immunity springs to mind. Schools should not be used to kick start the economy. The message from the government is work from home if you are able to , we are able to. Work is set for all our pupils and they can contact their class teacher via an email. Regular updates are sent to children and all vulnerable families are contacted most days to make sure they are coping. I appreciate that parents need their children to be in school so to go to work but not at a cost to other children, staff and their families. I am also a parent and have already made my decision that if they do announce the reopening of schools then my boys will not be attending until either their are no new reported cases or there is a vaccine. The well-being of my children far out ways the risks for them to be in school.

  23. I think you have no idea what you’re talking about to be honest. The Chief Medical Officer yesterday said we need to get used to social distancing measures being in place “for some time”. I think that effectively rules out a return to school before half term and the VERY earliest. There is no way to realistically socially distance in schools and if the schools go back too soon then it could well mean the general population starts to take other social distancing measures less seriously (e.g. gathering in parks, demanding pubs open). After all, many people will think that if the kids can mix with hundreds of others every day then why can’t everyone else?

  24. Couldn’t agree more Peter. I would also include that he makes no consideration for vulnerable people who will be put at risk by forcing teachers to prematurely return to work. Teachers have young children, partners, elderly family members, all of whom may have underlying health conditions. Imagine being compelled to work only to bring home the virus to your loved ones. Finally, anyone who believes that social distancing could be effectively carried out in a school, clearly hasn’t spent much time in schools.

  25. Layla Glassbrook

    Hands up, who thinks our children will be used as test subjects. What a joke, I have 7 children under the age of 9. their is no such thing as social distancing for the under 9’s.

    I’m guessing the government is saying hormonal teenagers will fair better?

  26. Glenda

    I am a primary school teacher and a parent. My husband has a kidney condition and I care for my elderly mother. Going back to school frightens me but not going back fills me with anxiety and guilt, mainly because of academics who think they have it all logically sorted and make me feel pressurised into doing what I actually know to be impossible! There is no easy way out of this situation but to even consider opening schools in the U.K. while we still have hundreds dying daily is actually bizarre. We may have flattened the curve but the virus is not going away. It is still out there as evil and harmful as ever. Bringing children back to school entails transport workers, cooks, cleaners, teaching assistants and teachers all stepping out into that swirling virus. Our classrooms are not like those in Denmark or Norway with their low ratio of pupils to adults, and children only starting school at 6 or 7 years of age. We teach children from 3 years old in crowded rooms throughout the U.K. In the first 3 or 4 years children learn largely through play and shared practical activities; the ‘social distancing’ classroom offers them neither of those things. Being told to stay put at a desk 2 metres from everyone else, while your teacher talks to you through PPE is not teaching as I understand it; it is entirely ignorant of their needs and borders on cruelty. We are worried about mental health issues in the days to come and rightly so. If government pursues this absurd advice, from academics who clearly lack practical experience with youngsters, then mental health issues and anxiety will be actively created. Nobody wants that, not even for the sake of the economy and children would be better at home. The fact that home is not safe for many children is the dark shame of our society’s underclass, but there will never be an answer to that. No amount of social workers and academic studies will stop people destroying themselves and their children in an ongoing cycle, rarely broken.
    But the sad reality is that we cannot save those youngsters by sacrificing everyone else. They are already lost because we can never MAKE their parents actively and consistently love them; like the NHS, society can only save who we can save. Staying at home and keeping schools closed for much longer is the only way, and we just have to pray for those for whom ‘home’ and ‘family’ are shamefully not what they ought to be. Only God can help them and to be honest only God can help the world combat this virus using every fibre of human intellect and human compassion that we can muster.

  27. I understand people’s’ concerns but in the end state workers must be the same surely as private employees – in the end if you won’t work then you will lose the job. Private employees are only covered by the furlough scheme until end June so I am not clear why the state should pay people to stay at home longer than private employees – we are certainly being compelled back to work there’s a choice but if you don’t go then you can be dismissed.

  28. I work in the public transport sector and unfortunately the school children who I have witnessed using trains to go to and from school are not well behaved at all.
    No amount of trying to explain the dangers of their behaviour or contacting the relevant schools makes any difference, they push and shove other passengers out the way, I won’t go into the rest of their antics to keep this relevent) the children would not take any notice of social distancing…the week before the lockdown they were spitting and joking around thinking it was funny to say they had coronavirus.. we had to have train carriages taken out of service.
    why should public transport staff , teachers and their families be put at risk.
    Have the government thought about all the members of staff at the schools and their families?

  29. Trudi Stamp

    I’m a LSA and my job requires me to sit shoulder to shoulder with pupils to assist with their learning.
    We have nearly 1000 pupils in the school and between classes the corridors are packed.
    I’m struggling to see how we can keep social distancing.

  30. Jamie Lee Russell

    I’m worried on all fronts the school my children attend is small no way social distancing could be possibly kept within classes my children are young and what young child wants to be told they can’t play with friends upon returning to school after being off so long that even more mentally damaging to a young child, they been off from school at home and I know it boring as they keep telling me as only so much they can do within the house and back garden it out of my hands out of theres but totally agree with teachers worries also as well as my own last thing I want is teacher to feel guilty that if one f my children got this is it due to them due to me or due to anything else it to many what it’s And I as a parent would not worst case scenario want to be at a point of having to bury any of my children that I love dearly like other ppl have been through this I just have totally no confidence to that it is possible to keep kids safe following rules and not down to staff mainly due to age maturity and understanding of the whole situation which young children just do not have and would I take all of theese risks as a parent just so the economy and government stops loosing money I can’t replace a child’s life with it so no I most certainly would not not at all

  31. Jan Win

    i work at a special needs school, i have 10 children on a bus plus three wheelchair users being picked up for school each morning and taken home each day ….how do you have social distancing on a school bus ….i have children who do not understand what social distancing means and i have to hold their hands to get them into school or they may run off ….Leave the schools shut till it is safe …..