While most schools in the city have remained open during the coronavirus pandemic to support vulnerable children, those with additional needs and the children of key workers, the vast majority of pupils have had to remain at home.
The Government has said that children from certain year groups can return to school from the start of June, but with many parents and teachers concerned about the health, safety and wellbeing of children and staff, the council is working closely with local providers to ensure there is a common approach to welcoming pupils back to the city’s schools which puts safety considerations first.
Councillor Dr Michael Hardacre, the City of Wolverhampton Council's Cabinet Member for Education and Skills, said: "Our city’s schools have been safely supporting vulnerable children and the children of key workers throughout the pandemic; the challenge now is how to ensure they can safely welcome more children from next month.
"We are clear that safety is paramount. A cautious, measured approach is necessary, and the guiding principal behind everything the city is doing is the safety of pupils, staff and the wider community.
“We know that the prospect of children returning to school at this time may be worrying to many parents and staff, and that’s why it’s so important that schools expand provision only when it is safe for them to do so.
“We have been working closely with all educational stakeholders to see how schools could be readied to welcome to more pupils, and through these discussions we have created a city-wide consensus as to how to proceed.”
Over 90 schools and other providers including early years settings took part in six consultation events with members of the council’s education, public health, and health and safety teams to agree a common approach to pupils returning to school. This approach is based on seven key principles:
- safety is first - decisions will be made taking account of the health, safety and wellbeing of adults and children in schools and settings
- advice and guidance will be based on evidence from international, national and local research and information
- good communication with families, schools and settings is essential to the success of the arrangements
- the approach will flexible, incremental and evolving; it does not need to do everything at once
- leaders will be supported to promote a curriculum which balances the academic and wellbeing needs of children and young people
- actions which need to be completed by schools will be simple, and schools will be supported by the council where possible
- vulnerable children remain the council and schools' top priority
The Government has said pupils in nursery, reception, Year 1, Year 6, Year 10 and Year 12 should be prioritised to return to school from the start of June, but it will only confirm this when it is satisfied that is safe to do so, with a decision on this potentially being made as late as next Thursday, 28 May.
If the Government confirms schools can take in children from the above groups, Wolverhampton is set to take a cautious approach. Primary schools in the city are recommended to use 1 June as an inset training day, so staff can be briefed on the new operating processes needed to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of all pupils, staff and the wider community.
Schools will then begin to welcome pupils back from Tuesday 2 June. They will be encouraged to do this in small steps, with 1 year group returning at a time, so that all prioritised year groups can return by Monday 15 June.
In addition, the Government has said it wants all primary-aged pupils to return to school before the summer holidays, though a decision about if and when pupils in Years 2 to 5 other years groups return will be based on Government advice.
Risk assessments are being completed by all schools, covering key safety and infection control issues, such as good personal hygiene, effective cleaning strategies and social distancing. To enable the latter, and based on the typical size of classrooms in Wolverhampton, the council has recommended that pupils be taught in groups of up to 10. Schools can, however, have larger groups of up to 15 if their classrooms are big enough.
Pupils and staff will remain in the same groups, so that each group forms a “bubble” and does not have physical contact with other groups while in school.
Under these plans, each classroom will be used for fewer pupils than normally, and more members of staff will be required to teach each class. This means primary schools may not have all pupils in all of the time.
Councillor Dr Hardacre added: "Education is vitally important for all children and young people, and we are keen that as many pupils can spend as much time in school as possible – as long as it is safe for them and their teachers to do so.
"Those schools which have remained open to children throughout the pandemic have developed expertise in social distancing when supporting small groups of pupils over the past few weeks.
“A series of stringent health and safety measures are being put in place to help all schools moving forward. Because of the restrictions on class sizes, schools may need to implement a phased approach to pupils returning, with groups of pupils initially be attending school only on certain days of the week and supported to learn at home on others – though vulnerable children and those of key workers will attend every day if they need to as they do at present.
"Schools have already been in touch with parents to ask whether their children will be returning to school from next month and, ultimately, the final decision rests with their parents or carers, with the Government saying that at the present time there will be no penalties for parents who choose not to send them in.
“What is very clear is that the council and schools are committed to working together to ensure that it is safe for children to return to school as soon as they are able to."
The latest information and guidance around coronavirus is available at GOV.UK and on the council’s own coronavirus pages at Coronavirus advice and information. There’s lots of advice on how people can protect themselves and their families from coronavirus from the NHS at Coronavirus (COVID-19).
The council’s Stay Safe, Be Kind campaign offers clear and simple advice about how people can help themselves, and how they can support others who may be particularly vulnerable at this time. For more information, please visit Stay Safe, Be Kind.