A safety net that’s largely loopholes. DFE guidelines on reopening schools.

Lets start with the really young children. Here’s what the DFE says about childcare settings for children younger than 4. Emphasis added.

In childcare settings, providers will be asked to welcome back all children below statutory school age from the week commencing 1 June. Demand for childcare is likely to be lower than usual at first, and existing space requirements and staff to child ratios for these age groups should allow for small group working. Where the physical layout of a setting does not allow small groups of children to be kept at a safe distance apart, we expect practitioners to exercise judgement in ensuring the highest standards of safety are maintained. In some cases, it may be necessary for providers to introduce a temporary cap on numbers to ensure that safety is prioritised. From 1 June, childminders can look after children of all ages, in line with usual limits on the number of children they can care for.

Well. How’s that for conditional? I have emphasised the slippery language. This translates as.

  • We want as many children as possible being looked after – so their parents can go back to work.
  • We know lots of parents don’t trust us enough to send their kids back, so that will mean there’s enough space to fit in those that do without us having to do anything special or lay down any unusual limits.
  • If there isn’t, its up to you how you sort that out, because the buck stops with you, not us.

Overall Guidelines for schools

Bearing in mind that their “ambition is to bring all primary year groups back to school before the summer holidays, for a month if feasible”, hence the rush to get Reception and Years 1 and 6 in as early as June 1st, this is the overall framework for doing this in “the safest way possible and limit the risk of the virus spreading in education and childcare settings.” These phrases contain uncertainty and concede before we start that there are going to be problems. The risk is there, but has to be limited – not eliminated. The procedures may be as safe as possible, but there is not guarantee that they will be as safe as they need to be.  Emphasis added.

  • minimising contact with individuals who are unwell by ensuring that those who have coronavirus symptoms, or who have someone in their household who does, do not attend childcare settings, schools or colleges. 
  • cleaning hands more often than usual – wash hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with running water and soap and dry them thoroughly or use alcohol hand rub or sanitiser ensuring that all parts of the hands are covered
  • ensuring good respiratory hygiene by promoting the ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ approach
  • cleaning frequently touched surfaces often using standard products, such as detergents and bleach
  • minimising contact and mixing by altering, as much as possible, the environment (such as classroom layout) and timetables (such as staggered break times).

This translates as….We are really hoping that no one asympotmatic comes in to work, but otherwise we are back to phase 1. Wash your hands while singing Happy Birthday, bin your tissues, clean your surfaces and stay in somewhat smaller groups than usual and…er, that’s it.

Of PPE, masks and bubbles

Government guidelines on wearing masks is that they should be worn in enclosed spaces, including public transport and shops where social distancing is not possible. DFE guidance says This does not apply to schools or other education settings – even though classrooms are enclosed spaces in which social distancing is not always possible (or desirable for educational purposes) and has been specifically ruled out as viable for younger year groups.

As the transmission of coronavirus is most intense in families, where people spend long periods of time together in small groups, DFE guidance for schools somewhat bizarrely aims to replicate this as much as possible; except that the small groups – or “bubbles” – are not so small. A maximum of 15 students and 2 adults who will spend all day together and away from all the other bubbles. In Denmark this was a group of 10. The larger number here being perhaps the educational embodiment of our far higher death rate and an indication of why we have had one.

The presumption is that these “bubbles” can be kept safe by making sure no one with any symptoms gets into them; and if any do, the separation of one bubble from another will contain the spread: on the same principle that the watertight compartments in the Titanic stopped the whole ship flooding and sinking, as we all recall. Moreover, as we know that Coronavirus can be transmitted for five days before any symptoms show up, the flaw in this argument is obvious.

Now to Clinical Vulnerability

A distinction is made between “extreme clinical vulnerability” and plain old “clinical vulnerability.” Put bluntly, if you are almost certain to die from contracting the virus “we strongly advise” that you stay at home; but if you just might die from it, the guidance says this.

If clinically vulnerable (but not clinically extremely vulnerable) individuals cannot work from home, they should be offered the safest available on-site roles, staying 2 metres away from others wherever possible, although the individual may choose to take on a role that does not allow for this distance if they prefer to do so. If they have to spend time within 2 metres of other people, settings must carefully assess and discuss with them whether this involves an acceptable level of risk.

In other words, you should be offered work in the “safest available” roles that allow you to stay 2 metres away from others “wherever possible”, but if those roles do not exist (I can’t think of any in a school outside of admin or senior management) and getting too close to other people is a necessary part of those that do, you “may choose” to be persuaded to accept that that level of risk is acceptable on the basis of a tokenistic risk assessment; and this will be your choice, because no manager want to have to carry the can for the pressure they put you under, or have it on their conscience if you get ill or die.

Here’s what they say about the risk of taking the virus home to someone who just might die from it.

If a child, young person or a member of staff lives with someone who is clinically vulnerable (but not clinically extremely vulnerable), including those who are pregnant, they can attend their education or childcare setting.

Lets not forget that their definition of “clinically vulnerable” is – “Clinically vulnerable … people are those considered to be at a higher risk of severe illness from coronavirus.” As they say “not all risk can be eliminated” (unless you actually have a policy and plan to eliminate the virus of course – perish the thought that we should expect a British government to be as determined or effective as the Chinese or New Zealanders) but this is setting people up to court a possibly fatal risk to their loved ones. This is probably how a journalist writing attack pieces from the safety of their home office for the Daily Mail or Express defines “heroic.”

They even suggest that a child who lives with someone in the extremely vulnerable category could be allowed to come to school if they were able to socially distance. This is the kind of guidance that makes the NEU’s description of the government’s approach as ‘reckless” seem mild.

Social distancing

Here are two sentences that contradict each other.

“…early years and primary age children cannot be expected to remain 2 metres apart from each other and staff. In deciding to bring more children back to early years and schools, we are taking this into account.”

So there will be no social distancing in Reception and Year 1. It might be thought that this would make these year groups the last ones that could be brought back safely. There is absolutely nothing in this guidance that addresses the particular needs or anxieties of children in this age group. Nothing. Just doing the handwash, surface clean, keep your distance (in a way that they have just conceded they can”t) routine is supposed to make sure “the risk of transmission will be lowered.” Note, not eliminated. If all this is done, all the time, and it all works, the risk will be “lowered.” Not exactly a ringing statement of confidence there. Of course, we are reasonable people and it would be quite unreasonable to expect that we could send our five year olds into school and expect them to be completely safe. Perhaps we should look at it as character building.

Contact tracing?

“The government is developing a new national test and trace programme. This will bring together an app, expanded web and phone-based contact tracing, and swab testing for those with potential coronavirus symptoms. This programme will play an important role in helping to minimise the spread of coronavirus in the future. It will also include more traditional methods of contact tracing if a child, young person or parent tests positive. This could include, for example, direct discussion with parents and schools or colleges on recent contacts. The government is recruiting 18,000 contact tracers to support contact tracing and will recruit more if needed. They will play an important part in tracing the contacts of those with coronavirus, including children.”

All very speculative. Not a sign of a worked out programme or policy. Nothing about how this would work, what the procedures would be, let alone when it might be in place. Given that running that this programme has been outsourced to SERCO – instead of run through GPs for example – there is no certainty here that such a system would even be in place, let alone rehearsed or tried and tested by June 1st. This is a bottom line they are trying to fudge.

If a child gets ill with any COVID symptoms

They should be sent home and…

“If a child is awaiting collection, they should be moved, if possible, to a room where they can be isolated behind a closed door, depending on the age of the child and with appropriate adult supervision if required. Ideally, a window should be opened for ventilation. If it is not possible to isolate them, move them to an area which is at least 2 metres away from other people.”

..and…

“If a member of staff has helped someone with symptoms, they do not need to go home unless they develop symptoms themselves (and in which case, a test is available) or the child subsequently tests positive. They should wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds after any contact with someone who is unwell. Cleaning the affected area with normal household disinfectant after someone with symptoms has left will reduce the risk of passing the infection on to other people.”

Given that it takes five days to develop symptoms this is completely rash. If the child does test positive, the member of staff may have been infected and be in contact with others for the rest of the day in their tight little bubble, possibly infecting several of them too before being tested themselves. They – and everyone else they have infected would then go home – some of them to people who are “clinically vulnerable.” Still, washing our hands and crossing our fingers – but not touching wood unless its been washed down “more often than usual” – should do the trick.

This phrase is another extraordinary one.

“All staff and students who are attending an education or childcare setting will have access to a test if they display symptoms of coronavirus, and are encouraged to get tested in this scenario.”

It might engender more confidence were they to say; any staff or students displaying symptoms will be tested.

In the case of a confirmed infection in a given site the presumption is that this will only have affected the bubble. The rest of the school will continue to function until more cases start cropping up. This is the opposite of the precautionary principle that we need to deal with and suppress this virus. The desire to keep settings open is being prioritised above the health risk.

Temperature monitoring

Even though other countries are doing this routinely as one way to screen out potential infections, the DFE says “Parents, carers and settings do not need to take children’s temperatures every morning.”

Testing

Its available but its up to you to book it. Not exactly comprehensive or failsafe.

It should be stressed that the NAHT (Primary Heads union) described these guidelines as “not practical” and many school leaders will have a view of these guidelines that is at least as critical as most teachers, TAs and parents. We all need to work together to make sure that when schools reopen the systems and procedures are in place for them not to be vectors of disease AND to be places where sensitive, nurturing learning can take place. These guidelines, and the June1st target date, do not allow either.

The digested read

Suck it and see, but wash your hands first.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “A safety net that’s largely loopholes. DFE guidelines on reopening schools.

  1. Clarity at last! Thank you! It’s clear that the Government will not take a position of responsibility and direct a set plan but just put out wishy washy guidance so that, should you contract Covid19, it will be your fault not theirs.

    Like

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