Confidence ‘A Fragile Thing’ as UK Schools Re-open in September: Poll

August 29, 2020 Updated: August 29, 2020

Most schools in England and Wales are confident about the preparations they have made for pupils to return to school in September, but confidence about how to respond to future outbreaks of COVID-19 was not as high, a headteachers union said on Friday.

The government late on Friday released new guidance concerning school reopenings and “last resort” measures for future school closures if there are local outbreaks, provoking criticism from teachers about the last minute nature of the updates.

“Our primary focus remains supporting all schools to welcome back all pupils for the start of term and we thank teachers and staff for their hard work in preparations,” Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said in a statement.

“We hope that we won’t have to implement the guidance set out today [Friday] because the local lockdown measures we have introduced so far are working. Changes to school attendance will only ever be an absolute last resort.”

A National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) poll of 4,000 school leaders, conducted a week before schools are due to re-open, showed 97 percent would be welcoming children to fully reopened schools at the beginning of the new school year.

The poll found schools were confident about things they felt able to control, like what to do in a suspected case of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus.

School leaders were not so confident, however, about the “external factors beyond a school’s control,” Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, said in a statement.

Children social distancing in school
Nursery children sit apart from each other to minimize the risk of passing on the CCP virus at Willowpark Primary Academy in Oldham, northwest England, on June 18, 2020. (Oli Scarff /AFP via Getty Images)

Confidence is a “fragile thing,” he said, referring to parents feelings about sending their children back to school.

The poll showed many school leaders did not have confidence in the government’s track, trace, and isolate initiative (7 percent confident; 68 percent not confident) and what schools are expected to do in the event of a local lockdown (18 percent confident; 42 percent not confident).

“You don’t need a crystal ball to see that local restrictions will be a feature of the autumn and winter,” Whiteman said.

“We’ve been calling for the government to publish a Plan B for several weeks. Finally it is here, but another late night publication is fairly typical of what we’ve become used to.”

Whiteman, however, called on parents and carers not to let “very public political difficulties and argument” impact their confidence in schools.

New Guidance

The government guidance covers transport, pupil age requirements for the wearing of face coverings, test and trace information, additional advice for the vulnerable, and the use of space and ventilation.

Mental health and well-being, hygiene measures, and contingency planning for local outbreaks are also covered in the government guidance.

The government has also relayed new guidance for schools in local areas where there are increases in CCP virus cases.

Arrangements under the guidance may involve secondary schools following a two-weeks-open, two-weeks-closed timetable, while primary schools stay open.

Safety measures for the return to school following the March closures to slow the spread of the CCP virus will include increased cleaning and staggered school start and meal break times.

Most schools plan to arrange pupil “bubbles,” put directional signs up to channel pupils and parents around school, encourage extra hand washing, and install hand sanitizing stations, NAHT said.

The 3 percent of schools not making a full re-opening at the start of the September term are having phased or staggered re-openings, NAHT said.

The new school term starts on Tuesday or Wednesday, but varies depending on the specific location of the school.