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How will social distancing work as more children go back to school in England?

While many schools have stayed open across the country to teach the children of key workers, as of Monday, kids in nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6, alongside priority groups, are being asked to return to the classroom as part of a wider easing of lockdown measures in England.

The government says the decision to gradually increase the numbers of children and young people attending schools and colleges is based on the latest scientific advice.

But concerns over safety have been raised by parents and teachers who fear social distancing will be difficult to manage in an education setting.

According to a GMB Union poll on Monday, more than 80% of parents did not intend to send their children back to school on 1 June, citing concerns over a lack of PPE and the absence of a comprehensive track and trace scheme.

Schools that have remained open during lockdown are practised in enforcing social distancing measures and arranging classrooms to accommodate the new protocols.

But keeping – or trying to keep – a small group of children two metres apart is one thing, but as class sizes grow, can this be maintained?

As more of the nation’s school children head back, what are the government guidelines concerning social distancing and how will schools manage to enforce these rules with bigger class sizes?

Pupils sit at separate desks at Hiltingbury Infant School in Chandler's Ford, Hampshire.
Pupils sit at separate desks at Hiltingbury Infant School in Chandler’s Ford, Hampshire.

What will classrooms look like?

Classes sizes will be reduced and children kept in “bubbles” with one member of staff assigned to each group. This means kids will be asked to mix only with their classmates in their bubble.

A maximum of eight per group is the government’s recommendation, although the guidelines allow for pods of up to 15.

Floor markings have been used by many schools to help keep children in different parts of the room, while desks, tables and chairs have been marked off to show children where they can sit.

If room allows, pupils can also be sat at separate desks and when kids sit on the floor for, say story time, stickers on the mat can be used to designated a space to ensure they are safely apart.

How will the groups work?

Children and staff should mix in these small consistent “bubbles” as much as possible and groups should stay away from others.

These bubbles should use the same area of the school or nursery throughout the day as much as possible and avoid sharing resources such as painting materials, books, pens and pencils.

Each designated group will have their breaks together, move around the school together and have lessons as one cohort.

What if space does not allow pupils and staff to remain apart?

Government guidance is very much that – each school will manage social distancing as best it can, depending on space and the individual needs of pupils.

With more children in a confined space, the physical layout of a school may not allow children to stay two metres apart.

In these situations, the guidelines say staff must “exercise judgement in ensuring the highest standards of safety are maintained”.

Schools are being asked to use areas not normally used for classrooms, for example school halls or dining areas, while staff are encouraged to use outdoor space as much as possible.

In some cases, if classes sizes are too squeezed, pupils may be asked to attend another nearby school.

What about early years and nursery? Surely they are too young to understand social distancing?

It is recognised early years pupils and children in nursery cannot be expected to remain two metres apart from each other and staff. In these cases, staff are asked to set out a range of measures to protect children and staff as best they can.

Teachers and nursery staff are being asked to come up with age appropriate and playful ways of helping young children understand the current measures through games, songs and stories.

One headteacher at a Netherlands primary school wore a wide white skirt and a hula hoop and used a long stick with a hand at one end to shake hands with students at a safe distance.

Teachers are encouraged to use outside space as much as possible.

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