Reopening Bristol’s schools

Today’s guest blog comes from Cabinet member for Education and Skills, Cllr Anna Keen.

On 20 March, schools closed to the majority of pupils. This was a decision that meant we had around 48 hours to create a new style of teaching – utterly unrecognisable from anything most teachers (or children) have experienced before.

As a teacher of Year 6 pupils myself I remember saying goodbye, deeply saddened by the uncertainty of whether we would see our pupils again in their primary school and fearful for their wellbeing and health in the coming days, weeks and months.

The decision to consider a phased reopening of schools was amongst many ill-thought out announcements that took place on 8 May.

It has left the education world reeling and with the toughest dilemma: all staff who work in schools choose to do a job in which they are surrounded by children and thrive on the face-to-face contact this provides. Online teaching is hard, nothing like as responsive or effective and it disadvantages children who are already vulnerable. Despite what some commentators may like us to think, teachers are desperate to be able to return to school. We have all continued to work remotely and most have been in schools looking after key worker and vulnerable children.

However, the other critical part of our job is keeping children safe. Being acutely aware of safeguarding (which includes health and safety) is drummed into teachers the moment we step foot into training college. We are therefore in conflict between being able to do what we know is right for children and being able to do this in a safe way.

This is not a binary issue where the government announcement is correct for every school or every child. Our Mayor and education team has made clear that we will show trust in heads and teachers and back them. They know their local communities. They know their families. They are best placed to know whether they can safely open their school and how many children they can keep safe.

We accept that there are some schools in which the safety guidelines can be met and we will support those that can open in some way from 1 June. We equally accept that many will not be able to achieve that and we support schools in their decision making.

I have never felt prouder of the teaching profession: their adaptability, professionalism and stamina. But I know that, despite our best efforts, children who struggle either academically or emotionally – or who are vulnerable to poor levels of care at home – would greatly benefit from some time in school. I absolutely believe that we have to achieve this return safely and that the picture in June should and will look very different to what the government wants.

We therefore fully support union views that scientific advice on child transmission should be published immediately so that headteachers and their staff can make informed decisions. It will be important for staff to take time to undertake full risk assessments and only open to more children if and when it is safe to do so.

No decision making is easy in times like this. My hope is that there have been lessons learned by central government about the need to engage with teachers, school leaders, unions, parents, carers and children before issuing guidance that will inevitably cause concerns for many people. 

Regardless of when and how your local school reopens, I feel confident that children’s emotional health will be a focus and that Bristol schools will continue to support their families through this time. 

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