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Coronavirus: how to respond to the reopening guidance
The government has asked schools to start planning to open to more pupils. As chair, you'll play a key role in getting ready. Here are your first steps.
What's the latest?
Schools in England will be asked to reopen for pupils in nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6, and offer some face-to-face support for pupils in years 10 and 12, from 1 June – if the government thinks it's safe to do so.
The Department for Education has asked schools to start planning for this, ahead of confirmation that the government's 'key tests' for reopening have been met.
Key points to keep in mind
There's a lot of worry in the sector. Many people feel there are more questions than answers at this stage, so you need to understand what your school leaders are currently grappling with.
What we do know
- The goal of opening schools to more pupils in the week commencing 1 June is aspirational and subject to change. The government is expected to make a final decision on 28 May
- The guidance on reopening is non-statutory – for example, this section of the DfE's planning guide for primary schools explains that schools can choose to use all, part or even none of it in their planning
- Each school's ability to open is dependent upon a satisfactory risk assessment. Your board will work with school leaders to ensure that all stakeholders – staff, parents and governors – are satisfied that the risk assessment is robust, based on sound health and safety practices, and appropriate for your school (see the 'Risk assessment' section of this guidance on actions to prepare for wider opening)
- Schools aren't expected to provide a broad and balanced curriculum right now, and won't be penalised for failing to do so (as explained in the 'Curriculum' section here)
- School leaders should consult governors and staff throughout their preparation for opening more widely (as per the 3rd question in these FAQs)
- Several education unions have issued a joint statement expressing their concerns about the government's guidance and timeline. Even so, it's still worth taking steps in preparation for a phased reopening at some point in the future
What we don't know
- Who's ultimately responsible for approving risk assessments and making the decision on reopening – the planning guide linked to above talks about school leaders undertaking the preparation for wider opening, but consulting governors and confirming plans and risk assessments with "relevant bodies". It refers to these bodies making "key decisions" but doesn't say whether this includes having the final say on reopening. (Note: given the strong health and safety angle to all this, the "relevant body" is likely to be your school's employer, i.e. the local authority, governing board or trust, depending on your school type, though this isn't stated specifically in the guidance)
- What role LAs and trusts play in reopening schools under their authority – some LAs have taken the decision not to open their schools, while some academy trusts have taken the decision to do so against LA advice. This relates to the point above, and has raised questions about:
- What authority LAs have to make this decision in opposition to the government's guidance
- What liability schools would have should they suffer an outbreak after opening against LA advice
We're seeking answers to these questions right now. Click the 'save for later' star in the top right corner to be notified when we update this article.
What do I need to do right now?
Understand your board's role in reopening
Although school leaders will be responsible for the operational details of reopening, as a board you’ll need to review their plans. This will include (see 'Options for delivery'):
- Scrutinising risk assessments to ensure they're robust and based on current government guidance
- Making sure your school works closely with parents, staff and unions to agree the best approaches for your school's circumstances
- Making sure your school coordinates with the LA to determine what services it requires and agree on what arrangements need to be made during this period. If your LA won't be providing services, make sure your school can obtain necessary services from other sources
- Making sure agency workers, contractors and others are taken into account along with regular employees. For example, site managers and cleaners may be particularly worried about their own safety so you'll want to know that school leaders have consulted with them about their concerns and addressed them appropriately
- Making sure your school continues to observe its obligations under:
- Health and safety
- Employment law
- The Equality Act 2010
Boards should also monitor and support staff mental health and wellbeing – for example, making sure flexible working practices are put in place to support good work-life balance (as explained in the 'Staff workload and wellbeing' in this section of the actions guidance)
If you're in an academy, you'll need to know the lines of accountability running across your trust's plans to reopen – some responsibilities might be delegated to local governing bodies (LGBs).
Get familiar with government guidance about reopening
There are several key pieces of non-statutory guidance that schools can refer to in preparation for opening to more pupils (some of which we've referred to above).
You don't need to get deep into the details, but it's useful to have a general idea of what the various pieces of guidance recommend.
- Actions to prepare for wider opening from 1 June 2020, or you can read our summary article here
- Planning guide for primary schools
- Implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings, or you can read our summary article here
- Opening schools for more children and young people: initial planning framework for schools in England
- Safe working in education, childcare and children’s social care settings, including the use of personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Conducting a SEND risk assessment during the coronavirus outbreak
Decide what expertise you'll need
Schools are only expected to carry out risk assessments and implement safety protocols based on published government guidance. It's understood that schools leaders aren't scientists or medics, so it's reasonable to rely on advice given by the government on the basis that it's guided by the science, according to a representative of Forbes Solicitors.
But the reality is that there's a great deal of uneasiness about how safe it is to start reopening schools. Consider if you'll want expert input into your school's plans to reassure the board as well as staff and parents that every consideration has been taken to be sure your school is safe.
Consider asking school leaders to consult with:
- Your insurance provider
- Legal advisors
- HR advisors
- Health and safety experts that specialise in schools, such as SafetyMark or Ellis Whittam (please note, the inclusion of these providers doesn't constitute a recommendation from The Key)
Open lines of communication with your school leaders
Your headteacher or trust leaders will be responsible for planning. It's your role to provide support.
You may be asked operational questions at this time. You can and should offer your thoughts if asked, but the final decisions on operational matters will rest with them. These will include decisions on:
- Social distancing
Keep the rest of the board in the loop
Keep them regularly updated on how the planning is going. Keep them informed about:
- What parts of the planning are going well
- What obstacles are arising and how they're being addressed
- Anticipated timelines
Remind them that if they have any questions, concerns or suggestions, they should communicate them to you rather than to school leaders. Communication should be streamlined at this time to minimise workload and stress for school leaders.
What will we need to do going forward?
Get the rest of the board involved
Once the planning is done and the risks assessed, the board will need to:
- Review planning and preparations
- Scrutinise any risk assessments
- Review policy changes in preparation for reopening. The government is recommending updates/addenda to your:
- Child protection policy
- Behaviour policy
You can do initial reviews at the committee level if it's more efficient. Remember that even if you don't have standing committees, you can set up special committees on an ad hoc basis to handle this temporary increase in workload.
We'll be providing more help with carrying out the tasks above soon.
Schedule a full governing board meeting before reopening
At this meeting, you'll need to:
- Have committees report on the results of their reviews
- Approve policy changes
- Challenge school leaders on their preparedness to reopen safely
The purpose of this is to get all challenges and debate on the record, so that you have documented evidence of your decision making.
We'll be publishing guidance on how to challenge your school's readiness to open soon.
Our thanks to Jane Owens and Pete Crockett for their input and feedback.
Jane Owens is a chair of governors at primary, secondary and special schools, and chairs a multi-academy trust board. She is a national leader of governance and conducts external reviews of governance across all sectors.
Pete Crockett is a retired special school headteacher who, prior to that, worked as a senior leader and SENCO in mainstream education. He has extensive governor experience, having served on governing boards as a staff, headteacher and co-opted governor. He has particular expertise in SEND, school leadership support and governance.
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