Class dispersed – how local primary schools are tackling social distancing ready to reopen on Monday

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Students at The Arnewood School test out donated face shields

HALF-SIZED classes, desks three metres apart and children wearing PE kits instead of uniforms – this is how many local primary schools are set to look as they prepare to open their doors on Monday to pupils in Reception and Years 1 and 6.

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Schools across Hampshire and Dorset have faced a mammoth task getting ready after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a partial reopening next week. Headteachers have a checklist of 109 points and a 45-page dossier on safety measures.

A fortnight later on 15th June, secondary schools will begin to provide some face-to-face contact time for Years 10 and 12.

Both Hampshire County and BCP councils have already promised that parents will not be fined if they decide against sending their children to school.

Cllr Roz Chadd, HCC cabinet member for education and skills, said: “It is a complex task and early education providers, school leaders and their governing bodies have had to work hard to plan and implement measures that will ensure that staff, children and young people can adhere to national guidance and operate as safely as possible.

“In so doing, they have been building on the government’s plans for a gradual, phased and initially small-scale return, allowing for local flexibility within schools in terms of class size, staffing, and the constraints of school buildings.”

Cllr Sandra Moore, BCP Council cabinet member for families and children, said: “All Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole early years settings, primary and secondary schools are risk assessing their sites in relation to the need for social distancing.

“[They are] in contact with parents about the measures they will put in place for keeping staff and pupils safe as early years and primaries open more widely from 1st June, if it is confirmed as safe to do so by the government for that date.”

However, the National Education Union this week urged headteachers not to reopen, pointing to the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – which is separate from the government’s official panel of advisers – had argued schools should stay shut for another two weeks.

Peter Badham, union representative for Southampton, told the A&T: “It believes that ‘test, track and trace’ will halve the risk by 15th June and that is when the reopening should begin.

“Schools in the area have done a lot of preparation but we do not believe it is safe to reopen yet.”

When pupils do go back, they will find lessons very different to before the Covid-19 outbreak.

Schools across the New Forest and Christchurch are looking at a range of measures including splitting classes into two with around 15 children at a time in ‘pods’ with desks kept apart. Pupils will be encouraged to frequently wash their hands.

Although at many schools teachers will not be wearing masks, they will operate from within a two-metre ‘safe space’.

Lunches will be packed and provided by the school with pupils not allowed to bring in food. Children will be able to enjoy playtime only within their pods. No ball games will be allowed, or anything involving touching the same play equipment.

At many schools children will be wearing PE clothes rather than full uniform so parents can wash them more frequently during the week.

No books or other equipment will be sent home with pupils. Drop-off and pick-up times will be staggered, and parents will not be allowed to congregate at the school gates.

After school finishes there will be a comprehensive cleaning regime where surfaces will be disinfected, books wiped down with sanitiser, and some resources put in disinfectant solutions overnight.

Many schools are introducing their own measures to help quell parents’ anxieties, such as at The Arnewood School in New Milton where 120 face shields have been provided by former student Christian Underhill, who lives in Christchurch.

He said: “I know the school and staff have been working incredibly hard through the crisis and have been in every day to look after the children of key workers.”

Headteacher Nigel Pressnell said: “Our survey of children, parents and teachers indicates that a number of them would feel more comfortable about being in school with the option of having PPE.

“Having the shields available will give protection and also confidence.”

In Christchurch the Priory Primary School said a survey of parents of reception-age children showed 74% wanted to send them back to class.

But it acknowledged there was “anxiety” among parents of older years with some wanting a “cautious and gradual” reopening.

As a result, the school is initially limiting classes to eight, and has postponed by a week Year 1 returning to school, with Reception and Year 6 going back first.

Lydlynch Infant School in Totton warned parents that despite taking all the measures it could, it “cannot guarantee a Covid-19 free environment”.

Ms Chadd added: “I’d like to reiterate my thanks, once again, to all early years education providers and our family of schools, who have been looking after the children of key workers and vulnerable children since 18 March, including during the Easter and half-term holidays.

“At the same time, they have maintained contact with, and provided ongoing educational support to, those children and young people who, on the Government’s instruction, have stayed at home.”

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