Education e-alert: A bit of reassurance in the COVID-19 climate
23 March 2020
You will either have made it to the end of the spring Term 2020 by last Friday 20 March, or you will from today be delivering your initial remote learning programme for pupils until your official Easter break.
In either case, the government has announced that schools are now closed, but we know that on the ground there is a lot going on for staff and governors. This e-alert is intended to bring you a bit of reassurance, direct you to the latest government guidance published at the end of last week/over the weekend and to let you know what we can do to assist.
All schools in England and Wales are 'closed' until further notice - nobody knows how long this will be for. The closure applies to all schools, including independent and boarding schools. The government guidance is clear that where children can be cared for at home, then they should be.
It would be prudent to update your school's website to confirm the position and direct parents to the contact details to use in the first instance if they have queries or concerns.
The DfE are asking schools to remain open for children of critical workers and vulnerable children where they can. This is an offer rather than a requirement to send these children into school, so if parents can make alternative arrangements or do not wish to send their children to school, they should simply communicate their intentions to you at school (preferably in writing, keeping in mind all the record keeping requirements that we usually advise).
Many of you have already been in touch with us to confirm that you are putting plans in place to remain open for this purpose and to discuss the staffing and employment issues that arise. Our Employment Team would be happy to assist with specific queries in this regard.
There will be collaborative working between the DfE, Regional Schools Commissioners, Local Authorities and local settings to find an alternative option for the children of critical workers and vulnerable children if a child's usual school is not open during this time.
What about the children of teaching and support staff?
DfE guidance confirms that teachers and school staff are critical to the COVID-19 response, so can send their children to school if they cannot be safely cared for at home by the child's other parent (or other suitable childcare arrangements). To limit the spread of the virus, children should be kept at home wherever possible.
Schools have been directed by the DfE to focus on safeguarding duties as a priority. Where you have concerns about the impact of staff absence, for example, your Designated Safeguarding Lead or first aiders, you should discuss immediately with the local authority (maintained schools) or trust (academies) or governing body (independent schools).
The vital role of schools
An extract from the DfE's 'Guidance for schools about temporarily closing', published 22 March 2020:
"We appreciate the selfless dedication that school, trust and local authority staff demonstrate in their work every single day. During this difficult time, we are asking you to go further still so that we can collectively address the challenges we face. You are vital to the country’s response to this crisis, and we offer our full support and gratitude during this difficult time. As this crisis progresses, we will aim to provide you with as much certainty and flexibility as possible and will do all we can to support the vital service you are providing."
Easter holiday clubs
At this time, the guidance states that schools should continue to look after the children of critical workers and vulnerable children throughout the Easter holidays.
Every option is being explored to keep residential special schools and residential specialist colleges open, including moving staff into these premises to avoid closure. Each setting will need to conduct an assessment for each child and decide on a case by case basis what action would best support their health and safeguarding needs.
Further guidance from the DfE and Public Health England 'Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance on vulnerable children and young people', published on 22 March 2020 is available here.
Primary assessments, including SATs, and exams including GCSEs, AS levels and A levels will not go ahead in the summer 2020 exam season. The DfE made a further announcement on Friday 20 March to confirm that Ofqual will be setting out a process that will enable students to be awarded a calculated grade which reflects their performance. Data from mock exams and non-exam assessments will be used as well as information from teachers on a pupil's prior attainment.
Ofqual will be discussing the approach with teachers' representatives before rolling out the final process. All that can be said at this time is that guidance from Ofqual and/or the DfE will be forthcoming – and we will keep you updated once further detail is available.
Students will be able to appeal their grades in due course if they do not believe the correct process has been followed in their case. They will also (in addition to, or if they would rather not appeal) have the opportunity to sit an exam at the "earliest reasonable opportunity, once schools are open again". Students will also have the option to sit their exams in summer 2021.
Vulnerable children include children with:
- a social worker (ie. children in need; those with a child protection plan; Looked After Children (LAC));
- an education, health and care plan (EHCP).
The DfE will give schools and colleges the flexibility to provide meals or vouchers to children eligible for free school meals and intend to put in place a national voucher system as quickly as possible.
For the time-being, arrangements should be made to set and mark work during Term-time.
In this age of technology there are many tools and resources available online and you will be making use of your virtual learning platforms via intranets, apps and websites.
If the disruption is long term, schools should be aware that some children may not have access to broadband with good internet speeds, or may not have access to the technology required to participate in remote learning. Adjustments should be made for these situations.
If schools introduce remote-learning facilities, especially webcam-led lessons, they should keep in mind the following safeguarding concerns:
- There should be no one-on-one online lessons.
- The same standards should be maintained as far as possible. Teachers and students must wear suitable clothing, should carry out classes in an appropriate setting (i.e. not a bedroom) and should ensure that language is professional and appropriate (including the language of those in the background).
- All online sessions should be recorded and backed up, in case any safeguarding issues arise.
- Data controllers should ensure that any software used does not pose a risk to the schools privacy obligations.
- Schools should ensure that the terms and conditions of any software used in remote learning permit business use.
Your IT teams will be busy(!) ensuring that you are properly set up to deliver your remote learning programme through school based platforms (wherever possible) to ensure the correct policies and procedures are adhered to.
Leaving children unattended - guidance for parents
Extract from the DfE's Guidance 'Closure of educational settings: information for parents and carers', updated 20 March 2020:
"There is no law about when you can leave your child on their own but it is an offence to leave them alone if it places them at risk. As parents, you should use your judgement on how mature your child is before you decide to leave them at home. It is important to be aware that you can be prosecuted if you leave a child alone ‘in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health’. If you are at all unsure, the NSPCC recommends that children under 12 are rarely mature enough to be left alone for a long period of time, children under 16 shouldn’t be left alone overnight and babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone."
Other things to consider
- Keep your COVID-19 planning committee running. We have advised our school clients to consider setting up a small planning committee of staff (perhaps at SMT level with some Governor oversight and involvement of a medical professional) so that it is clear who is taking a lead on these matters.
- The School will need to have one appointed person that can be contacted throughout school holidays to co-ordinate communications to parents for the start of next Term and manage queries that come in.
- Payment of school fees for independent schools. More on this in our next update: our Education Newsletter summer 2020 edition.
- International students and guardianship arrangements. Are these clear and satisfactory? Are you in touch with these students?
- School site cleaning arrangements and other contractors that come on site.
- The mental health of all members of your school community.
For the latest government guidance to schools, see:
- Guidance for schools about temporarily closing, published 22 March 2020
- Closure of educational settings: information for parents and carers, updated 20 March 2020
- COVID-19: guidance for education settings, updated 20 March 2020
- Exams announcement 20 March 2020
- Coronavirus (COVID-19): cancellation of GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2020, published 20 March 2020
- Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance on vulnerable children and young people, published on 22 March 2020
If you are seeking legal advice about how to deal with the issues surrounding COVID-19, please contact Vicky Wilson by completing the contact form below.
We would be happy to help and wish you all the best in these unprecedented times.
The Education Team
This update is of a general nature and is not a substitute for professional advice. No responsibility can be accepted for the consequences of any action taken or refrained from as a result of what is said.