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Heads of 20 primary schools in Bishop's Stortford area will not be welcoming back youngest pupils on June 1

The head teachers of 20 primary schools in the Bishop's Stortford area have told parents they will not be following Government guidance on the youngest children returning to their classrooms on June 1.

Instead, driven by concerns around four-, five- and six-year-olds being able to socially distance, some will be welcoming back pupils in a phased approach, starting with the eldest (Year 6) on that Monday at the earliest.

Provided things run smoothly in the first week, Year 1 children could return on Monday June 8, followed by those in Reception and Nursery on Monday June 15.

But some of the schools might not be able to welcome back all of the priority year groups and some schools might be able to offer only part-time places.

Schools have been closed to all but key workers' children and vulnerable children for almost nine weeks throughout the coronavirus crisis. The Government has announced a gradual easing of semi-lockdown restrictions, including the return of the youngest and oldest children to primary school in a little under a fortnight.

But the heads of all 11 primaries in Bishop's Stortford, three schools in Sawbridgeworth and six village schools have told parents and carers they will not be accepting the youngest pupils from the start.

In a letter emailed late on Monday afternoon (May 18), they said: "We feel strongly that the Government’s priority age groups do not provide a suitable route to reopening of our schools that will enable children and staff to stay safe within the strict rules for social distancing and infection control we must put in place.

"We know from experience that younger children, and particularly those in the early years, are unable to understand the need to stay socially distant from each other. Their learning is based on play and social interaction, both of which are best served in a context that does not require them to be apart from others.

"Current advice from several teacher unions, and a large number of other professional groups and unions including [doctors' union] the BMA [British Medical Association], disagree with the Government’s view about how soon schools should be reopening. According to their advice, the infection risk to the community remains high if different parts of the community mix and are unable to observe social distancing measures.

"We fully understand the need for our children to be back at school, learning, as soon as possible. We are eager to facilitate this and support the nation’s efforts to get back to ‘normality’. However, it cannot be done at the expense of the safety of our pupils, staff and all the families linked.

"We have therefore agreed... to ensure that children who can appropriately social distance are the first to return, to enable us to secure and robustly assess the school’s risk assessment, before allowing younger children to return who will not be able to naturally follow these difficult rules."

The 20 schools in and around Bishop’s Stortford and Sawbridgeworth already have a close working relationship and support each other in many ways. Accordingly, they are taking a unified approach on the issue of school reopening.

The letter adds: "All our local schools feel in this unprecedented situation there is a need to be very cautious with any plan to reopen. This will mean adapting our usual operating procedures and the way classrooms are laid out. This in turn requires a great deal of planning and hard work by staff to provide a safe, effective learning environment.

"The number of children we could reopen to will also depend on the number of staff available – like many others in our community, several are in vulnerable or shielding categories.

"Therefore, to ensure our children and staff are as safe as possible, we have decided to take a co-ordinated, phased approach to opening our schools. This will ensure the safeguards and measures we are putting in place to protect your children are the right ones, and we can rapidly make adjustments as needed."

Each of the 20 schools is working on its own plan, but the factors for them to consider are universal:

Organisation of the day

  • Pupils might need to return on a part-time basis
  • Start/end of the day, lunchtimes, playtimes etc may be staggered
  • Adapted timetable to allow for more flexibility – not all subjects taught each week
  • Cleaning routines to accommodate different use of the building

What is being taught

  • The National Curriculum is suspended – learning may be based on themes/topics
  • Pupils' mental/emotional wellbeing will be very important
  • PE and play involving physical activity, sand/water may not be possible for younger children
  • Home learning activities for those not in school will need to continue

Organisation of pupils

  • Pupils will be taught in smaller groups than their class based on themes/topics
  • Groups must stay separate and not mix (including staff)
  • Social distancing requirements
  • Access to school facilities (toilets and dining halls)
  • Activities involving group/pair work may not be possible
  • Pupils may be taught by unfamiliar staff as availability allows

The 20 schools are:

BISHOP'S STORTFORD: All Saints, Hillmead, Manor Fields, Northgate, Richard Whittington, St Joseph’s RC, St Michael’s CofE, Summercroft, Thorley Hill, Thorn Grove, Windhill21.

SAWBRIDGEWORTH: Mandeville, Reedings and Fawbert & Barnard Infants.

VILLAGE SCHOOLS: Albury, Furneux Pelham, High Cross (Puller Memorial) near Ware, High Wych, Little Hadham, Much Hadham (St Andrew's C of E) and Spellbrook.

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