Edwina Grant told a meeting of Lancashire County Council’s education scrutiny committee that the authority had done “everything we can” to achieve the government objective of getting children in every year group back into class for the start of the new academic year.
However, she added: “Each individual site is context-specific and we have said [to schools] that your children must go back – as long as you feel it is safe to do so.”
Reception, year 1 and year 6 children have been permitted to return to Lancashire’s schools since 22nd June. Just over 31,000 pupils are now in class, around a third of whom have remained in school throughout the pandemic as the children of key workers or families in need of extra support.
Government guidance issued last week ordered schools to carry out an assessment of the risks staff and pupils face from any wider reopening and “do everything reasonably practicable to minimise them” – consulting with pupils themselves, where deemed appropriate.
The County Hall meeting heard that Lancashire schools were being offered support on specific aspects of that assessment which may be proving problematic for them.
Members were also told that personalised risk profiles would have to be drawn up for vulnerable children with education, health and care plans (EHCPs) – including those with medical needs.
The meeting heard that no schools in Lancashire were planning to make significant use of additional accommodation in order to maximise social distancing.
However, Ms. Grant revealed that one of the biggest challenges faced by all schools in the county lay in getting their pupils to and from the premises safely in the socially-distanced world they now inhabit.
“The government has recommended that [schools] could use staggered start times. That brings a positive in terms of getting children safely into school, but then if you’ve got siblings…you might have an hour [over which] you’re getting them [into class].
“Distancing on public transport vehicles means they can get fewer people there – so there will be a cost for us. We have given schools good guidance and they have been very positive about that – but it will be challenging, particularly with our special schools.”
Members heard that creation of so-called “bubbles” of children within school communities meant that parents had to be prepared to make alternative arrangements if a coronavirus case was identified within their own child’s group, thereby causing the whole bubble to be sent home.
Ms. Grant said that the new set-up would make it particularly challenging to run clubs before and after school.
“When we come back in September, if those provisions [can] be opened safely, we will support that.
“The children will be in their bubbles in school and if they are accessing different after school clubs, it may be that children join different bubbles – and for everybody’s health and the wider community we are going to have to step very carefully,” she warned.
An outbreak of coronavirus is defined as two or more confirmed or suspected cases occurring within a 14-day period. In that scenario, locally-devised outbreak control measures will be initiated – the ultimate of which is the temporary closure of the entire building.