Deputy Mayor Anntoinette Bramble. Photograph: Hackney Council.

Hackney’s deputy mayor and education boss has criticised the government’s lack of guidance for schools on how to safely reopen during the coronavirus crisis.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last night that schools could reopen for some year groups from 1 June – a phased return beginning with Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils if the government feels infection rates are low enough to allow it.

Cllr Anntoinette Bramble says she has been “constantly” writing to government in her position at the Local Government Association to seek guidance on health and safety, staffing, absences, and how social distancing would operate, but getting no clarity back.

Bramble said: “I still have concerns about this, because one of the things we were saying to government is you need to give schools a good lead-in time. The guidance is not in place, so by the time the government filters out what it is going to disseminate to schools, they’re going to have less than three weeks to prepare.

“The government has to be clear about the guidelines it is giving to schools. Schools can not be making plans to open without knowing what the guidelines are, and what they have to follow.

“What it does is it gives schools less time to prepare, because schools are not going to want to open until they feel confident and it is safe to do so, and they will want to comply with what the government is asking them to do. So it puts pressure on settings to open and to put everything in place with a minimum amount of time, and that is unhelpful.

“The 1 June seems early given that schools don’t have the guidelines. My question to government is, if you’re saying 1 June is when you want them to open, when are you going to give schools the advice and guidance to be able to comply?”

According to the deputy mayor, the only guidance on which Hackney Learning Trust has any assurance is the current, publicly available advice for schools during the crisis, last updated on 28 April.

In an illustration of the difficulties in planning for schools without guidance, Bramble gave an example of a headteacher perhaps planning for 25 children to be coming back to school in a day from 1 June, who would then be put in the position of having to revise their plans if guidelines were subsequently published for 15 pupils per day.

Bramble added: “It’s planning for one of the most complex scenarios you’ll ever have to plan for without knowing what’s expected of you while you’re planning.”

The council also wants answers from government on how absences will be dealt with and recorded for children living with  with parents or elderly families that have to self-isolate, as well as what support will be in place for families and carers at home who will still be homeschooling as settings reopen.

A similar information void exists for the local authority as to how the Prime Minister’s announcement related to schools for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), with Bramble urging government to provide reassurances over what PPE they will need.

The deputy mayor recently came out in support of the National Education Union (NEU), which has given its own five tests to government ahead of any openings being considered:

  • Much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases
  • A national plan for social distancing
  • Comprehensive access to regular testing for children and staff
  • Protocols to be put in place to test a whole school or college when a case occurs and for isolation to be strictly followed
  • Protection for vulnerable staff and those who live with vulnerable people

Bramble said that no school would come under pressure from her to open if its head “did not feel confident that they had clear guidance from government on what safety measures were put in place”, adding that her first priority is children returning to school “in a safe manner”.

Stressing the need for engagement with teachers, unions and local authorities ahead of large announcements, she said of the government: “Talk to us, liaise with us, confer with us at an earlier stage so we could help at what’s a very disruptive time for pupils, parents and teachers. But we say that time and time again, and they just don’t comply.

“What you have here is the announcement, then a pause, then the guidance, then the guidance raises questions and we have to go back, and that’s unhelpful for everybody involved.”

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