Hampshire headteachers praise pupils and staff but express concerns over the 'challenges of social distancing'

AS SCHOOLS have remained open for key worker parents, headteachers have raised concerns about maintaining social distancing but have praised the attitude of children and staff.

By Neil Fatkin
Thursday, 26th March 2020, 2:16 pm
Updated Friday, 27th March 2020, 7:03 pm

After the government announced schools would remain open for children of parents who are on the front line in the battle against coronavirus, headteachers have commended families on following government advice to only send in children where there ‘is no other alternative’.

With an increasing number of teachers having to self-isolate, education leaders across the county had been concerned schools may have been forced to close if safe teacher to pupil ratios were exceeded.

However, Ian Gates, headteacher at The Cowplain School, said: ‘Parents have been excellent and have heeded advice - they’re only using us if needed. Morale amongst students and staff was extremely high.’

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Crofton School headteacher, Simon Harrison, has warned schools could still close if there is any 'substantial' variation in current staff pupil ratios. Picture: Loughlan Campbell

Many of the region’s schools have reported ‘less than expected’ numbers of children.

Mr Gates added: We had 15 in on Tuesday and have around 40 students who may come in. The majority of parents are from NHS and emergency services.’

Crofton School headteacher, Simon Harrison, who reported 35 students in attendance, said: ‘This was slightly less than expected. Many parents registered interest but were then able to find alternatives.

‘Staff and parents have been incredibly supportive in getting this provision up and running.’

Park Community School headteacher, Chris Anders, is concerned about maintaining social distancing. Picture: Sarah Standing (280619-2144)

Horndean Technology College had 15 pupils in despite initial correspondence suggesting 80 children could be arriving.

Headteacher Julie Summerfield said: ‘Parental response to our initial email suggested we could have quite a large number of students. However, following government guidance we emailed parents to say they should only send in children where absolutely necessary.’

Park Community School in Havant have reported ‘around half the number of pupils we expected’.

Mr Anders said: ‘Yesterday we had 24 students, today (Tuesday) there were 21. We seem to have more than other local secondary schools in the Havant area. Some local primaries have as many as 40.’

While Hampshire Local Authority could not provide a definitive number of pupils attending school, executive member for education, Cllr Roz Chad, has praised parents for following government advice.

‘We have been pleased to hear that most parents have heeded the national advice to keep children and young people at home if at all possible. Primary schools are typically serving between 10 and 20 children and secondary schools between 20 and 40 young people. School staff are doing their best to provide an exciting curriculum so that pupils are actively engaged,’ she said.

Despite doing their best to adhere to government guidelines, headteachers have expressed concerns over maintaining social distancing while at the same time maximising the number staff remaining at home.

Mr Harrison said: ‘Social distancing is challenging when we are still working with students on site. We have spread them out in rooms and other spaces as far as possible.

‘However the more we spread students out the more staff we require so there’s a balance to be struck between social distancing and keeping the largest possible number of staff working from home. If we maintain the same number of students on site as today then as long as there is not a significant increase above current rates in staff absence we believe staffing is sustainable.’

Mr Harrison did warn any ‘substantial’ variation could result in the school having to close.

‘This is hard to predict, and if we had a substantial increase in students attending or greater rates of staff absence we would find achieving safe staffing a challenge.

‘In that situation, as with any school, we would have to close the school fully and ask the local authority to support provision for key worker’s children and those in vulnerable groups at a different site,’ he said.

Mr Anders feels lower than expected numbers reflects the anxiety being experienced.

‘A growing number of staff are isolated either as vulnerable or because a family member is showing symptoms.

‘For now staffing is okay, but I think the lower number of children than expected reflects the general concern about being out and the impossibility of social distancing if you are in school with others.

‘Children in classrooms are spread out and staff are trying to observe the spacing when undertaking planning but clearly its still quite a number of people in proximity.’

Community concerns have even led to eligible families not venturing out to collect free school meals.

Mr Anders added: ‘We offered pack lunches to Free School Meal children not in school but only a dozen out of 300 came to collect.’

Portsmouth City Council also confirmed the number children attending schools is ‘lower than expected’ – after fears that schools could still close if large numbers of children arrived.

Cabinet member for education, Cllr Suzy Horton, said: ‘The government expected numbers to be around 10 per cent of the school population and I believe we are around five per cent. I would like to thank parents for only sending in children where absolutely necessary. Teachers are themselves key workers and we need to protect them.

‘We don’t know how things will pan out but at present I’m confident we can meet the needs of these key worker children.’

Schools are providing online learning resources for children both studying at home and in school. However, staff are trying to provide a more practical learning experience including physical education and cookery lessons.