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.