How will schools change in England as students return for autumn term?

Students in England are returning to school in the first week of September for the new academic year

From the first week of September, students across England begin returning to school for the autumn term.

The start of the new academic year will mark the first time schools have fully reopened for all age groups since lockdown was established in March, despite some reopening in some capacity over the summer.

In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, several aspects of the school day may take some getting used to for pupils and members of staff alike.

From having to practise social distancing to being placed in “bubbles” with other students, here are some of the most significant ways schools in England are changing as they welcome back the student body.

Will students be penalized if they do not attend school?

When lockdown was first implemented in March, the government stated that parents or guardians would not be penalised if the children in their care did not attend school.

However, as the autumn term commences, “the usual rules on school attendance will apply”, the government states.

This includes the “availability to issue sanctions, including fixed penalty notices in line with local authorities’ codes of conduct”.

Academic institutions are required to keep a record of the attendance of their pupils in their charge and enquire as to any absences.

The government outlines that local councils can fine parents £60 if their child misses school, a penalty that increases to £120 if it is not paid within 21 days.

If parents do not pay the penalty after 28 days, they may be prosecuted.

Do pupils have to wear face coverings?

In England, it is compulsory for members of the public to wear face masks in settings such as public transport, shops and places of worship.

However, for children attending school, the rules are more relaxed.

On 21 August, the World Health Organisation stated that “children aged 12 and over should wear a mask under the same condition as adults, in particular when they cannot guarantee at least a one-metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area”.

In its guidance on face coverings in schools, the government states that children of a primary school age – in Year 6 and below – will not have to wear a face covering in any circumstance in schools.

For students in Year 7 and above, it will be up to their schools whether they, members of staff and visitors will need to wear face coverings “in areas outside the classroom where social distancing cannot easily be maintained”.

When face coverings are worn, it is “vital” that they are “worn correctly and that clear instructions are provided to staff, children and young people on how to put on, remove, store and dispose of face coverings”.

While schools will be able to choose whether to make face coverings a requirement in settings where social distancing is not possible, the government adds that “on the basis of current evidence”, face coverings “will not generally be necessary in the classroom even where social distancing is not possible”.

The government states that implementing “bubbles” or teaching in small groups is of “greater use”, adding that “face coverings can have a negative impact on learning and teaching and so their use in the classroom should be avoided”.

In regions where local lockdowns or restrictions have been established, students in Year 7 and above and adults in schools will be required to wear face coverings outside classrooms when social distancing is more difficult, such as in corridors.

“In the event of new local restrictions being imposed, schools will need to communicate quickly and clearly to staff, parents, pupils that the new arrangements require the use of face coverings in certain circumstances,” the government states.

Social distancing and “bubbles”

Over the course of summer, as schools reopened following their closure amid lockdown, academic institutions were encouraged to limit the amount of contact pupils and staff members had with one another by forming “bubbles”.

These bubbles were introduced predominantly with younger students in mind, as older pupils are better able to practise social distancing.

“Maintaining distinct groups or ‘bubbles’ that do not mix makes it quicker and easier in the event of a positive case to identify those who may need to self-isolate and keep that number as small as possible,” the government states.

In light of the “decrease in the prevalence of coronavirus” as the autumn term starts and the “resumption of the full range of curriculum subjects”, schools may need to increase the number of students and staff members within bubbles, the government outlines.

This may mean increasing the size of bubbles in secondary schools to include an entire year group of pupils.

“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,” the guidance states.

Adults within schools are advised to stay at least two metres away from others, including children.

In the classroom, it is recommended that students be sat side-by-side facing towards the front of the classroom, in order to avoid face-to-face contact, and schools are also advised to considered staggering lunch times, with surfaces requiring cleaning in the dining hall in between groups.

The government adds that while older children may be able to adequately practise social distancing, this may not be possible for younger children.

Furthermore, “it will not be possible when working with many pupils who have complex needs or who need close contact care,” the guidance notes. “These pupils’ educational and care support should be provided as normal.”

Do members of staff have to wear PPE?

In general, members of staff in schools will not have to wear personal protective equipment (PPE).

However, it may be needed in certain circumstances, such as if a student develops coronavirus symptoms while at school and if they are unable to be kept at a two-metre distance from others.

If a child or young person “already has routine intimate care needs that involve the use of PPE”, then this should continue as usual, the government states.

Changes to activities such as PE and music

While the full range of curriculum subjects is being resumed in schools as the new academic year commences, some subjects will inevitably have to be altered to ensure students and members of staff reduce risk of further Covid-19 transmission.

It is up to schools how they decide to conduct physical activity, although schools may only allow pupils to take part in team sports that have been approved by the government.

In keeping with the focus on “bubbles”, it is advised that students be “kept in consistent groups” when doing PE, with sports equipment “thoroughly cleaned” in between uses by different cohorts of students.

“Outdoor sports should be prioritised where possible, and large indoor spaces used where it is not, maximising natural ventilation flows (through opening windows and doors or using air conditioning systems wherever possible) distancing between pupils and paying scrupulous attention to cleaning and hygiene,” the government states.

With regards to subjects such as music, dance and drama, research is currently being conducted to ascertain their risk, which has been commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The government explains that there may be “an additional risk of infection in environments where singing, chanting, playing wind or brass instruments, dance and drama takes place”.

What steps should be taken if a student or staff member shows Covid-19 symptoms?

If a student or staff member shows symptoms of coronavirus, then they should not come to school and must self-isolate at home, the government stresses.

If a student or staff member who has been in school tests positive for Covid-19, then the academic institution will need to take “swift action” by contacting their local health protection team.

If NHS Test and Trace identifies a person who has tested positive and attended school, then the local health protection team will reach out to the school.

“The health protection team will carry out a rapid risk assessment to confirm who has been in close contact with the person during the period that they were infectious, and ensure they are asked to self-isolate,” the government states.

“The health protection team will work with schools in this situation to guide them through the actions they need to take. Based on the advice from the health protection team, schools must send home those people who have been in close contact with the person who has tested positive, advising them to self-isolate for 14 days since they were last in close contact with that person when they were infectious.”

While speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday 1 September, education minister Nick Gibb explained that any pupil or staff member who shows symptoms “will be asked to return home and then to take a test”.

“They will be given priority in the testing regime – we have capacity for 300,000 tests a day,” Mr Gibb said.

“Yes [there is an onus on parents to arrange a tests] and if a school is concerned that the parents are unable to get to a testing centre, every school has been sent a small number of home testing kits that can be used for those families.”


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