Headteachers face up to 'mind-boggling logistics' of full reopening in September

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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The logistics of keeping apart many different “bubbles” of children in full schools from September is “mind-boggling”, school leaders have warned.

The government has published its guidance for primary and secondary schools ahead of full re-opening in September.

Its recommended approach is not based on social distancing, but instead on creating larger social bubbles and preventing mixing between groups.

However, in order to accommodate all pupils, the guidance says that these bubbles can be whole classes (in primary or key stage 3) or even whole year groups (in key stages 3 to 5).

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said that school leaders will have to consider “implementing staggered starts, finishes, and lunch times, alongside transport to and from school, on an epic scale” in order to achieve a full return. The National Education Union (NEU) called the challenge “immense”.

Elsewhere, ASCL has criticised the decision to make attendance mandatory and reintroduce parental fines for non-attendance from September.

Essential measures

The guidance (DfE, 2020) says that schools must “review their health and safety risk assessments” ahead of September. Measures in the guidance labelled as “essential” include:

  • A requirement that people who are ill stay at home.
  • Robust hand and respiratory hygiene.
  • Enhanced cleaning arrangements.
  • Active engagement with NHS Test and Trace.
  • Formal consideration of how to reduce contacts and maximise distancing between those in school wherever possible.

To reduce contact between groups of children and teachers, the guidance advises:

  • Grouping children together.
  • Avoiding contact between groups.
  • Arranging classrooms with forward-facing desks.
  • Staff maintaining distance from pupils and other staff as much as possible.

Schools will also need to have contingency plans in place for the possibility of a local lockdown or pupils having to self-isolate at home.

Larger social bubbles

The guidance states that while smaller group sizes remain the preferred option, the “decrease in the prevalence of coronavirus” allows social bubble sizes to be increased.

It adds: “In secondary schools, and certainly in the older age groups at key stage 4 and key stage 5, the groups are likely to need to be the size of a year group to enable schools to deliver the full range of curriculum subjects.

“At primary school, and in the younger years at secondary (key stage 3), schools may be able to implement smaller groups the size of a full class. If that can be achieved, it is recommended.

“Schools should assess their circumstances and if class-sized groups are not compatible with offering a full range of subjects or managing the practical logistics within and around school, they can look to implement year-group sized ‘bubbles’. Whatever the size of the group, they should be kept apart from other groups where possible and older children should be encouraged to keep their distance within groups.”

Keeping groups apart

Groups should be kept apart and movement around the school minimised. Break times, lunch times and arrival and leaving times should all be staggered. Assemblies should be avoided as should any other large gatherings.

The guidance adds: “While passing briefly in the corridor or playground is low risk, schools should avoid creating busy corridors, entrances and exits. Schools should consider staggered break times and lunch times (and time for cleaning surfaces in the dining hall between groups).

“Schools should also plan how shared staff spaces are set up and used to help staff to distance from each other. Use of staffrooms should be minimised, although staff must still have a break of a reasonable length during the day.”

On arrival and leaving, the guidance adds: “Staggered start and finish times should not reduce the amount of overall teaching time.”

Social distancing

Teachers and school staff can work across different classes and year groups “to facilitate the delivery of the school timetable”, but they should maintain social distance of two metres where possible, the guidance states.

Older children should also “be supported to maintain distance and not touch staff and their peers where possible” within their bubbles. The guidance adds: “This will not be possible for the youngest children and some children with complex needs and it is not feasible in some schools where space does not allow. Schools doing this where they can, and even doing this some of the time, will help.”

Equipment & belongings

The guidance says that schools can begin using some of the equipment that has been removed because of contamination risks. However, regular cleaning will be essential.

For “individual and very frequently used equipment”, such as pencils and pens, it is recommended that staff and pupils keep their own items.

The guidance adds: “Classroom-based resources, such as books and games, can be used and shared within the bubble; these should be cleaned regularly, along with all frequently touched surfaces. Resources that are shared between classes or bubbles, such as sports, art and science equipment, should be cleaned frequently and meticulously and always between bubbles, or rotated to allow them to be left unused and out of reach for a period of 48 hours (72 hours for plastics) between use.”

In terms of pupils’ belongings, the guidance says this should be limited to “essentials such as lunch boxes, hats, coats, books, stationery and mobile phones”. Bags are allowed too.


The guidance says that dedicated school transport should operate using the two-metre social distancing rule where possible, or one-metre plus if not. How pupils are grouped on school transport should reflect their social bubbles in schools and other measures include hand sanitiser upon boarding and disembarking and organised queueing systems.

Schools should also work to minimise the use of public transport, encouraging walking and cycling and changing start times to allow journeys to take place outside of peak hours.


The guidance asks schools to: “Teach an ambitious and broad curriculum in all subjects from the start of the autumn term, but make use of existing flexibilities to create time to cover the most important missed content.”

It adds: “Up to and including key stage 3, prioritisation within subjects of the most important components for progression is likely to be more effective than removing subjects, which pupils may struggle to pick up again later.”

Schools are asked to prioritise reading across all subjects and should be aiming to return to a normal, full curriculum in all subjects by the summer term 2021.

Remote education should also be “integrated into school curriculum planning” in case of local lockdown or pupils who need to self-isolate.

Schools are asked to select online tools that will be “consistently used” across the school and ensure staff are trained in their use. Printed resources, such as textbooks and workbooks, must also be provided for pupils who do not have suitable online access.

At key stage 1 and 2, the guidance says schools are “expected to prioritise identifying gaps and re-establish good progress in the essentials (phonics and reading, vocabulary, writing and maths)”. However, it adds that “the curriculum should remain broad”.

At key stage 3, it calls for a broad curriculum too, but adds that “for pupils in year 7, it may be necessary to address gaps in English and maths by teaching essential knowledge and skills from the key stage 2 curriculum”.

At key stages 4 and 5, the “vast majority:” of pupils are expected to continue to study their GCSE options. However, the guidance does allow some flexibility for pupils to drop subjects if this is considered in their best interests.

It states: “In exceptional circumstances, it may be in the best interests of a year 11 pupil to discontinue an examined subject because the school judges that, for example, they would achieve significantly better in their remaining subjects as a result, especially in GCSE English and mathematics.”

Elsewhere, schools have been given until the summer term to begin teaching statutory relationships and health education (primary) and relationships, sex and health education (secondary) after it becomes compulsory from September 2020.

And caution is urged over activities such as singing and playing wind or brass instruments, activities which can lead to transmission even when socially distanced.

School staff

The government’s shielding measures will be relaxed from August 1 and the guidance says that it “expects that most staff will attend school” from September.

It adds: “Where schools apply the full measures in this guidance the risks to all staff will be mitigated significantly, including those who are extremely clinically vulnerable and clinically vulnerable. We expect this will allow most staff to return to the workplace, although we advise those in the most at risk categories to take particular care while community transmission rates continue to fall.”

On other categories of risk, such as BAME, the guidance states only that schools should “discuss their concerns and explain the measures in place to reduce risks”.


The guidance recommends that schools ensure additional time for their designated safeguarding leads (and deputies) from September. This is to help them “provide support to staff and children regarding any new safeguarding and welfare concerns and the handling of referrals to children’s social care and other agencies”. The guidance adds: “Communication with school nurses is important for safeguarding and supporting wellbeing, as they have continued virtual support to pupils who have not been in school.”


Penalty fines for non-attendance are being brought back from September with mandatory attendance. This means that schools will be required to record attendance and follow-up absence as normal with sanctions, including fixed penalty notices, once again available. The guidance asks schools to “identify pupils who are reluctant or anxious about returning or who are at risk of disengagement and develop plans for re-engaging them”.

ASCL is against the reintroduction of fines. General secretary Geoff Barton said: “This is not the right message at this difficult time and we need to focus on building confidence rather than threatening sanctions. The government should make it clear to school leaders that there will be no expectation on them to issue fines from the start of term and that there will be a period of grace as attendance settles down.”

Cases of infection

If schools have a case of Covid-19, they will be advised by their Public Health England local health protection team. Action might include small groups of young people and staff being asked to self-isolate for up to 14 days.

The guidance says that schools “must” understand the NHS Test and Trace process and if there are two or more confirmed cases in a two-week period, a larger number of pupils, perhaps even a whole year group, may have to self-isolate “as a precautionary measure”.

If an outbreak is suspected a mobile testing unit may be despatched. All staff, pupils and their families will have access to testing if they develop Covid-19 symptoms, and schools will be provided with home-testing kits for children and staff who would otherwise be unable to get a test.


Ofsted inspections are currently scheduled to restart in January 2021. This autumn, Ofsted will, however, carry out visits to schools “to discuss how they are supporting the return to education for their pupils”. This will not result in a judgement, and the findings will be used to publish advice for all schools.

A national plan B

Commenting on the guidance, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The logistics of keeping apart many different ‘bubbles’ of children in a full school, including whole-year groups comprising hundreds of pupils, is mind-boggling.

“However, we recognise that the options about how to bring all children back to school in the autumn are limited. It is the right ambition and it has to be done in a way that mitigates the risks associated with coronavirus as effectively as possible.

“There just needs to be a sense of reality about what is possible. This is not going to be perfect. It will be hard for everyone concerned to implement and become accustomed to difficult and complicated systems, and it will not work smoothly all the time.”

The National Association of Head Teachers echoed this view. General secretary Paul Whitman said: “While a model of larger group sizes is perhaps the only feasible way to get all pupils back to school on a full-time basis, no-one should underestimate the scale of the challenge school leaders will now face in making these plans work in practice, especially in secondary schools.”

ASCL has also urged government to put in place a “national Plan B in the event that we arrive at September and it becomes clear that a full return is just too risky”.

The NEU, meanwhile, said that the challenges ahead for schools was “immense”. Joint general secretary Kevin Courtney added: “The government has to be able to convince school staff that sufficient measures are in place to make it ‘Covid secure’ for them to work in a class of 30 or more children – with neither social distancing nor PPE, and often with poor ventilation.

“In secondary schools the difficulties multiply. The practical difficulties involved in arranging this separation of year group bubbles are immense and will not be possible in many schools. We are concerned that the government does not have a plan B if these guidelines do not work or if cases are higher by the time we get to September.”

Elsewhere, deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, said: “Everybody wants children to be safe and thankfully as we have learned more about Covid-19, the evidence has shown that the risk of severe disease in children is low. However, although the number of Covid-19 cases has declined, it is still in general circulation – so it important we ensure schools implement sensible precaution to reduce potential transmission of Covid-19 and minimise any risk.”

Further information

DfE: Guidance for full opening – schools, July 2, 2020: www.gov.uk/government/publications/actions-for-sch...


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