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Former Bury St Edmunds headteacher Geoff Barton among those warning over coronavirus lockdown easing

Concerns have been raised about the practicalities of easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions for schools and businesses.

From June 1, the Government expects primary schools to welcome back children in nursery, reception, Year 1 and Year 6 and non-essential retailers can potentially begin to reopen under social distancing measures.

However, the Suffolk branch of the National Education Union (NEU) said the plan was ‘ill thought out’ and ‘dangerous’ and former Bury St Edmunds headteacher Geoff Barton said it was ‘an odd starting point’.

Geoff Barton. Picture by Mecha Morton
Geoff Barton. Picture by Mecha Morton

Meanwhile, Mark Cordell, chief executive of Our Bury St Edmunds, said it was ‘difficult to envisage how many businesses could open on June 1 and comply with the current guidance’.

Graham White, Suffolk NEU press officer, said: “I have very grave reservations. It has not been thought through properly.

“Have you ever tried getting a four or five-year-old to maintain social distance i.e two metres, when they’ve been told they need to maintain that and they’ve not seen their friends for a very long time?

Graham White (34692752)
Graham White (34692752)

“It will be largely play-based learning in the early years so you’ve got wendy houses, money and things like that. Who’s going to be cleaning these because they need to be cleaned regularly?

“You’ve got to make sure those children are toileted so you can’t have more than one go to toilet at any one time. They need to thoroughly wash their hands. Who is going to supervise that?

“There are so many issues – it has not been thought out.

“They’re putting the pupils’ health at risk, they’re putting staff at risk and they’re putting parents at risk.”

Mark Cordell, chief executive of Our Bury St Edmunds Business Improvement District. Picture by Mecha Morton
Mark Cordell, chief executive of Our Bury St Edmunds Business Improvement District. Picture by Mecha Morton

He said the NEU sent three letters to the Prime Minister over the last four to five weeks asking for a copy of the Government’s modelling but had ‘no response’.

“It’s been ill thought out. It’s dangerous,” Mr White said.

“Yes, we want a return to school but it has to be when the time is right, there has to be all the protections in place, there has to be that dialogue involving the headteachers because they know their schools best.”

Schools are expected to make a number of changes including reducing the size of classes and keeping children in small groups without mixing, staggered break and lunchtimes as well as drop-offs and pick-ups and increasing the frequency of cleaning.

Secondary schools, sixth form and colleges will also look to provide some face-to-face contact with pupils in Year 10 and Year 12 to prepare them for exams next year.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said bringing in younger children first was ‘an odd starting point’ and the ASCL would have begun with Years 5 and 6 and then Years 10 and 12.

Mr Barton, former headteacher at King Edward VI School in Bury, said schools needed to work with governors on risk assessments and speak to parents because ‘ultimately if there isn’t the trust of parents, there aren’t going to be any children coming back to school’.

He said: “I’ve been frustrated by a lack of clear leadership from the Government. No-one is saying this hasn’t been the biggest crisis since the Second World War.

“We just need our leaders to understand that absolute clarity in communicating why we are doing certain things, how that will work, is absolutely paramount and we could do with a greater sense of clarity particularly on this issue.”

Tim Coulson, chief executive of the Unity Schools Partnership which is the largest schools trust in West Suffolk, said: “The safety of both children and staff are paramount to us and we will be working over the next few weeks on plans to maximise whatever expectations are set out for social distancing in schools.

“We will be contacting parents about the detailed arrangements that will be needed and when children in different classes will be invited back to school.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said scientific advice indicated ‘it will be safe for more children to return to school from June 1’ but they ‘will continue to limit the overall numbers in school and introduce protective measures to prevent transmission’.

As part of lockdown easing, non-essential retailers can start reopening from June 1 and other businesses such as hairdressers and those in the hospitality and leisure industry could open from July 4.

Mark Cordell, chief executive of Our Bury St Edmunds business improvement district, said a number of issues needed to be considered and steps needed to be taken to make the town centre safer to encourage visitors.

When considering social distancing, he said businesses operating from smaller premises might find it ‘difficult’ and would have to consider staff and customer numbers and turnover before reopening.

Mr Cordell said: “If at the same time as the shops opening, there’s a relaxation of the social distancing guidelines that makes it easier but on its own it’s difficult for me to envisage how many of our independent businesses can open their shops on June 1 and comply with the current guidance.”

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