When will York’s schools reopen? Here’s what the council’s education chief told us

Photograph: Charisse Kenion / Unsplash
20 May 2020 @ 7.13 pm
| Education

York head teachers are gearing up to reopen schools on 1 June.

But it’s far from certain that every city school will open its doors on that date.

The government says it wants Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 classes to start going back after half term.

In York head teachers are working positively to open to those pupils by then.

But the decision will be made by heads and governing bodies on a school-by-school basis, said Cllr Ian Cuthbertson, City of York Council’s executive member for children, young people and education.

And he told YorkMix that secondary schools in the city are set to welcome Year 10 and Year 12 students from the second week in June.

It is a “very fluid situation” – but this is the thinking right now…

Heads are ‘extremely positive’ about reopening

Ninety per cent of all York schools have been open throughout lockdown, teaching children of key workers and vulnerable pupils.

Will they open to more students on 1 June? “Possibly yes,” Cllr Cuthbertson said.

“The heads have been extremely positive about it.

“The York Schools and Academies Board, which has overseen all this with the director and assistant director, worked hard together to plan for this and work out how it might all happen.”

Schools have also been canvassing parents’ views, so they can respond to specific concerns.

But because the government has said it will make a decision on reopening just days before 1 June, schools don’t know how many students will be coming back yet.

And the data is changing all the time. Both these factors making planning difficult.

The risks

“There are three groups of human beings to take into account in these solutions,” he said.

“One of them is the children themselves. Another one is the staff in the school, not just the teachers, but support staff, the school meals people, everybody involved.

“And the third group are the parents, grandparents and carers who bring children to school and pick them up during the day – and ensuring that they don’t pass an infection to each other.

Cllr Ian Cuthbertson. Photograph: City of York Council/YouTube

“There’s also a bit of science that’s missing, in the sense that we don’t know enough about the transmission from children to adults.”

Another issue he is concerned about is “the number of children who might exhibit toxic shock symptoms after incurring Covid-19.

“Apparently it’s a small number – but again, there’s a lack of information about that.”

There was another pressing problem.

“There are children who really should be back at school: vulnerable children, children who really need to socialise with their age group, that’s another complexity.”

Each school had its own particular challenges.

“The risk will vary according to the size of a school, and its access – what kind doors it’s got, how you get access from one part of the school to another – and how they can lay out classes within the space that they’ve got.”

Heads might decide against

“At the end of the day, if a headteacher and governing body decide that it’s not safe to operate with an increased number of pupils, they can ultimately say ‘no, we don’t want to reopen and we’re not going to’.”

And the council would back that decision, he said – particularly as new information is emerging all the time.

“I’m prepared for head teachers to say at the end of all this, actually, having gone through all this exercise, we don’t think it’s doable.

“I’m not saying I want them to say that or I expect them to say that.”

But “at this point we are doing our best to support head teachers in making a decision for their own school”.

PPE and hygiene guidance

City of York Council is responsible for supplying personal protective equipment (PPE) to schools.

It is also in charge of sending out practical advice, gained in conjunction with Public Health England, about spacing out pupils and general hygiene “from cleaning door handles to surfaces to hand washing”.

Can parents withhold their children?

Even if schools reopen, some parents might decide not to send their children back.

The government has said “we won’t expect local authorities to fine parents who don’t send their children to school,” Cllr Cuthbertson said.

Is social distancing really possible?

One York teacher has voiced their fears over reopening, and the difficulty of enforcing social distancing rules on young children.

“That’s recognised as a big problem. The jury’s slightly out on that.”

To try to address this, primary schools want to stagger the return of Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.

“I don’t think they will all go back together. I think there will be a gradual build-up of numbers over that first one or two weeks.”

It is not yet clear which age group might go back first.

What about staff – could they refuse to go back?

If a teacher felt conditions in school were unsafe and said they would not return, what would happen?

“It’s a school-by-school issue. But the council is obviously very sensitive to individual circumstances. There may be a teacher who has a health issue, if they’ve got one of these underlying conditions.

“I would assume that a head who had a teacher in that situation would say don’t come back.

“In terms of more doctrinaire objections to returning – we’ll have to see how that one pans out.”

The unions “have taken a catch-all situation that says it’s dangerous so we don’t want to go back, we think it’s not safe.

“I suppose there’s a question of judgment. When you cross a road, how do you work out whether it’s safe or not? And that’s something you learn over time.

“We don’t have the luxury of empirical evidence to inform our behaviour. And at some point we have to go back to school.”

What will happen in secondary schools?

“They have a similar problem to primaries. They’re going to take a slightly longer lead-in time. Their numbers will begin to build up in the second week in June.”

As long as social distancing measures remain the question will be “how do we integrate remote learning into our current curriculum?”

“The way the numbers are stacking up, I don’t think that schools will be able to accommodate maybe a quarter or a third of their pupils if you include social distancing.”

Finally Cllr Cuthbertson paid tribute to all involved. “We owe a big debt to our teachers and head teachers, to our education support staff in the directorate, to mums and dads, and to governing bodies who have also been meeting.

“Everybody’s done their bit.”