When I first wrote about the gathering storm two months ago, the very idea of sheltering in our homes for weeks on end seemed like a far-fetched dream.
But we were different people then. People who idly bustled with crowds at shops and joked about the sudden lack of toilet paper.
And so we entered our homes-made-shelters and watched as the unfamiliar became the ‘new normal’. So much so, that now that the government has asked us to leave shelter and once again walk about outside (more than the once daily state-mandated activity) the fear of doing so surpasses the fear we felt back in March when we embarked on this strange new adventure.
And now we as school leaders have been asked to plan just how this is to be done with some, but by no means all, the information and reassurances which we desire. We do so with nothing guaranteed. This crisis, and indeed this problem, is not one we asked for nor ever imagined at Headteacher school. But it is the problem we have.
So here are the things that I’m reflecting and and discussing with new Headteachers as we go about this task. It is not clever, nor exhaustive, but it may reassure you that I know no more than you:
1. Nobody really knows how to do this.
These two weeks leading up to half term, as the date for the first possible partial reopening looms large, will be stressful for all of us school leaders. None of us will have a crystal clear plan initially and chances are plans will change multiple times.
This whole crisis is ‘less than ideal’ and our plans may not be ideal either. We will do our absolute best, with the information we have, but we will all agonise (and occasionally swear… and drink cider of an evening – or that might just be me) as we grapple with planning something with far reaching consequences.
It’s okay if you sometimes find this a little overwhelming – we all do at times.
2. Clarity of Communication is key
Throughout this whole crisis, clarity of messaging has been the key to confusion or success.
Staff and parents are understandably very nervous about coming back to school and we must think very carefully about what messages we are providing. We must make sure that our communications:
- Are concise and unambiguous.
- Identify safety as the over-riding priority, but acknowledge that not all risks can be mitigated.
- Provide a timeline for updates.
- Address concerns without over-promising.
- Don’t overwhelm with too much initial information.
Staff should be offered regular opportunities to ask questions and you should feel confident to answer ‘I don’t know yet’.
3. Break the problem into small chunks.
As a headteacher with over 13 years experience, this is by far the most complex and difficult plan I’ve been asked to put together.
Like many, I initially despaired at the enormity of it. But then I sat down with my SLT and we broke it down, going through the available guidance line by line and breaking the problems down into ever more manageable chunks.
4. Start by identifying the risks
We need to all get very good at risk assessments – and fast!
And I don’t mean half-hearted risk paper-work assessments, I mean risk assessments which look at each and every specific potential risk associated with a potentially infected child being in school in each and every room, area and possible activity. We have even had to consider how teachers will safely mark books; how children will access cutlery at lunch; how doors will be opened (then handles cleaned).
There are a million possible risks and we must try to identify as many as possible. Having identified the risks (and read all the guidance available on mitigation) we must then look at how we will mitigate as many of these risks as possible and name the actions we will take in black and white. Only then will staff and parents have confidence that we have considered the detail.
5. Get your class-based senior leaders to help establish classroom risks
We may think we know how our schools work, but unless we are doing the job day in, day out, we don’t have the level of detail needed to identify potential problems. In the first instance, I have tasked phase leads to identify the risks linked to different activities within their classrooms. They work in that environment everyday and are best placed to find these.
6. Make sure the office and site staff play a vital role.
The person who actually knows how to complete risk assessments is your School Business Manager/ Leader so they need to be guiding you through the process along with your site team if they have a H&S role.
Whilst you, and others at the chalk-face, will have the detail as to what specific classroom/ activity risks are, they will have specialist knowledge as to how to enact some of the mitigation, especially in terms of controlling entry to the site and managing new cleaning patterns.
Likewise, your front office staff will be managing a multitude of questions from parents which will require an in depth understanding of the strategy. It is essential that they are involved in the discussion around the plan as it forms to ensure that they are confident in explaining its delivery.
7. Invite staff to comment and contribute to the draft strategy and risk assessments.
Whilst it is likely that you and your senior team will draft the initial re-opening strategy and risk assessments, the DfE guidance is clear that staff should be included in contributing to these.
They will know their role and environment better than anyone else and are bound to pick up on risks which you have missed. Indeed, even when we do re-open, we plan to have a space where staff can write up pinch points so adaptations can be made as we see how the phased re-opening is working. Staff will also feel more secure if they have had the opportunity to help assess the risks and understand how this has been done.
8. Acknowledge the risk and explain the ‘why’.
This is perhaps the toughest challenge for us as leaders in re-opening our schools.
This venture is not without risk. This virus has, and will, kill many more people before it’s pushed back. Putting several hundred children altogether in a space adds to this risk – there is no two ways about it – although I (personally) believe the risk of this in our schools at this time is indeed manageable and acceptable if the government’s tests are met.
However, this risk is not going to go away (even if we were to wait for September). Until a vaccine is injected into every arm, we are going to have to manage this risk.
Each and every one of us must do our own calculations as to the risk to ourselves and our households. Scientists will offer computer models and the latest research but the actual risk (as opposed to the potential risk) will not be known until many years after each of us made this calculation. Some staff will decide quite easily that the risk to themselves is slight and will think no more about it. For others the risk will weigh more heavily on their minds.
As leaders we have been asked to plan for this re-opening. We will need to very carefully explain to staff why schools are being re-opened in England, and why we are asking them to add to their personal risk for the national good. We must always come back to the known facts and the example of our European neighbours (most of which are doing the same).
But in the end this is a judgement call that the government has had to make and that we are asked to enact. Our staff will trust our judgement over any sitting Prime Minister, so we must explain in our own way why we have been called upon to complete this task.
9. Don’t get dragged into the fray.
The unions are worried about the safety of this venture and are speaking to their members about this. Whilst I personally believe that schools (if the governments tests are met) may be safe to open on or after 1st June, it is not for me to enter this argument.
I know that my staff have been amazing throughout this crisis and staff morale has never been higher. But I fear that the unions and the government are not on the same page at present and I fear that this conflict could eat away at morale at exactly the point where I need it to hold firm.
All I can do is keep talking to my staff, often one-to-one as well as in whole school communication, and persuade them of my commitment to their safety.
What we must not to is speak carelessly or respond testily.
We must be the calm.
10. Don’t worry about any full opening plans yet.
I think the Government tacking on an ambition to get all children back to school ‘in July’ was unhelpful when we currently won’t know what June will look like.
So I’m currently not going to make any plans for this. If it looks like this is a possibility and the virus is well down, then I will worry about a plan. But for now I will focus on the first immediate problem.
There’ll be time enough to worry about the next problem later.
So good luck. We we are in unknown territory and must support each other.
And I have no doubt, if we always act with integrity and honesty, then years from now we will feel proud of our actions in the next few months.