This joint commentary and checklist will assist reps in challenging what is being unrealistically expected of school leaders. The guide sets out that special school leaders should work closely with unions, staff and parents when developing their plans.

While some special schools have remained open for almost all pupils, we are aware that the vast majority of head teachers share our concerns about the rush to expand wider opening across the board and are maintaining current levels of attendance or keeping schools shut. For those special school heads who are seeking to open their schools more widely, some from 1 June, our intention is not to make life more difficult but rather to provide material which will assist in putting forward arguments to local authorities and trusts about why these plans are premature.

Questions for reps to ask are suggested. If satisfactory answers are not forthcoming in all areas, then it will not be feasible or safe to extend opening until concerns are met. There is a checklist of these questions on the next page for you to use – but please read all the supplementary advice and questions in the rest of the document before you decide whether to answer Yes or No to each of them.

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This checklist is based on current Government and public advice and is intended to help ensure that employers meet their duties to assess risks and take steps to remove or control them. As the science develops, it will be kept under review and may be revised.

Current Government advice to special schools says that “special schools, post-16 special schools and hospital schools will work towards a phased return of more children and young people without a focus on specific year groups.”

Implementing the steps as per Government advice is likely to be a huge and wholly unrealistic task for school leaders, who are under massive pressure, and impossible to accomplish in a way which will reassure staff that their health and safety, and that of the children, will be protected.

School staff will not be protected by social distancing rules nor, in most cases, will they be offered any personal protective equipment (PPE).

There is no advice from the Government about numbers of children who should be in a special school/ special school class. While we know that children generally have mild symptoms, we do not know enough about whether they can transmit the disease to adults so do not think that Government should be posing this level of risk to our society.

Given that the science does not yet show that children do not transmit the virus, we believe that schools should operate in the same way as other workplaces and maintain social distancing in classrooms and in movement around the school.

Given that many children in special schools may have underlying health conditions we believe that additional caution should be taken in carrying out individual risk assessment, social distancing measures and use of PPE in order to protect the school staff and pupils.

This means that leaders must determine the numbers of pupils they admit according to maintaining social distancing of 2 metres between pupils and between pupils and school staff. The number of children in each class must be calculated accordingly. It is for school leaders to make this decision in discussion with staff who know children well, to keep their staff, their pupils, their families and their communities, safe.

In making these decisions school leaders and the local authority must consider the wider catchment areas of special schools, which often have children who travel from a long distance to attend each day, and whether the wider community of the school will be exposed to additional risks from a wider school opening. Where, for example, the wider catchment area of the school encompasses communities with greater number of Black residents there is likely to be an increased risk. This should be taken into account when risk assessing safe numbers to return to school as part of any wider opening. Transmission rates across any catchment area should be considered.

The Government needs to work with the education unions to create the conditions for a safe wider opening of schools based on the principles and tests set out below:

  • Safety and welfare of pupils and staff as the paramount principle.
  • No increase in pupil numbers until full rollout of a national test and trace scheme.
  • A national Covid-19 education taskforce with Government, unions and education stakeholders to agree statutory guidance for safe wider opening of schools.
  • Consideration of the specific needs of vulnerable students, SEND students and families facing economic disadvantage.
  • Additional resources for enhanced school cleaning, specific PPE requirements for special schools and residential special schools and risk assessments.
  • Local autonomy to close schools where testing indicates clusters of new Covid-19 cases

What the DfE says about the role of local authorities and trusts in respect of extended opening

The document sets out that head teachers should confirm their extended opening plans with relevant bodies (the local authority (LA) or trust), particularly their risk assessment, and consult with mayoral offices where relevant. It is also important to consult with the governing body which in some cases may be the employer.

Our advice to reps

This is the wrong way round and not acceptable. The starting point should be that the LA or trust, as employer, provides a union-agreed risk assessment template and training for school leaders on how to adapt it to the circumstances of the individual school. Health and safety reps have the legal right to be consulted on the risk assessment and future amendments. Also required is a reporting system to be in place to allow staff to urgently alert school leaders to any shortcomings in arrangements or where systems aren’t functioning as they should be.Also note that every school is unique and, whilst there will be many common features, each will need to consider any additional relevant risk factors beyond what is set out in this joint commentary and checklist. This will include when a high incidence of infections develops in a particular area.

Summary of checklist questions for reps to answer

Overall

Have you been consulted on the risk assessment for extended opening of your school? Are you satisfied that it addresses all key issues? Yes / No

Step 1 Preparing the Site

Health and Safety Check of the Building

Are you satisfied that these checks will be complied with in time for extended opening? Yes / No

Cleaning and hygiene

Are you satisfied with the cleaning and hygiene arrangements that will operate from when extended opening begins? Yes / No

Movement around the school to reduce contact

Reviewing staff for availability in school Yes / No

Step 2 Reviewing staff for availability in school

Audit of staff

Are you satisfied that safe staffing levels will be in place from when the school starts to open more widely? Yes / No

If there is no head/deputy, DSL, Nurse, SENCO, caretaker/cleaning staff availableWill the school close if any of these key staff are unavailable? If not, are you satisfied that a safe environment can be maintained from when the school starts to open more widely? Yes / No

Step 3 Familiarise yourself with the maximum safe group size

Are you satisfied that adequate arrangements for group sizes, social distancing and PPE where necessary will be in place when extended opening begins? Yes / No

Step 4 Creating and staffing your temporary teaching groups

Are you satisfied that the arrangements to operate from when the school opens more widely are safe and fair and will be acceptable to both teachers and teaching assistants/LSAs? Yes / No

Are you satisfied that staff and children will be able to move safely through the corridors and up and down stairs and lifts from the date when the school opens more widely? Yes / No

Site Examination

Are you satisfied that these arrangements will be in place in time for extended opening and they will work on a practical level? Yes / No

Step 5 Practical steps to reduce risk

Are you satisfied that these issues have been resolved to your satisfaction in time for the start of extended opening? Yes / No

Step 6 External support for SEND and behaviour

Are you satisfied that these issues have been considered and that measures covering these areas will be in place in time for extended opening? Yes / No

Step 7 Changes to routines for staff and pupils

Are you satisfied that these issues have been adequately addressed before extended opening begins? Yes / No

Step 8 Communicating with staff

Are you satisfied that this issue has been adequately addressed before extended opening begins? Yes / No

Step 9 Communicating with parents

Are you satisfied that parents are aware of what is expected of them? Yes / No

Step 10 Managing pupil and staff wellbeing and mental health

Are you satisfied that appropriate measures will be in place when the school begins to open more widely? Yes / No

Step 11 Planning what to teach and how

Are you satisfied that these issues will be adequately addressed by the time extended opening begins? Yes / No

Step 12 Remote education during wider opening

Are you satisfied that the school will be able to operate on both levels with the staffing available and without increasing the pressure on staff, when extended opening begins? Yes / No

For a more detailed step by step guide to questions for reps to ask, download the planning guide for special schools