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Netherhall principal: Heads ‘have no appetite’ to fine parents too anxious to send children back to school

Fining worried parents for refusing to send their children back to school amid the Covid-19 pandemic would be “ridiculous”, a Cambridge headteacher has said.

Netherhall School principal Chris Tooley said it was a “suggestion made by people who are not working in schools and don’t understand the relationships in place with parents and families.

Chris Tooley, principal of The Netherhall School. Picture: Keith Heppell
Chris Tooley, principal of The Netherhall School. Picture: Keith Heppell

All children are expected to return to the classroom in the coming days, with some year groups being called back first.

The government has warned that parents could be fined if they do not comply.

But Mr Tooley said his aim was to rebuild relationships with parents and families and to provide students with an education – even if that meant home schooling.

And he added there was “no appetite” in schools across the county to use “threats” to force families to send children back to school.

Milton Road Primary School headteacher Rae Snape echoed his sentiments, saying: “It would be absolutely foolish to fine parents. There would be no benefit to fining people who are understandably anxious. People need support, not to be vilified at this time.

“We need to lead with empathy. Any of us could be in those shoes. I’m not going to judge that. Now is the time for kindness, not punishment. There is absolutely no way I would fine people.”

Mr Tooley added: “If parents don’t send pupils back, we will be providing them with online learning."

And he explained: “It is at our discretion – we don’t have to fine people. It is a school decision, but I know from speaking to people within the county that there is no appetite to be working with our communities using threats. Schools are not about threats.”

Milton Road Primary School headteacher Rae Snape. Picture: Keith Heppell
Milton Road Primary School headteacher Rae Snape. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cambridgeshire County Council was more circumspect.

A spokesperson said: “The government expects all children and young people, in all year groups, to return to school and college full-time from the beginning of the autumn term, unless they have been advised otherwise by their GP or other health professional.”

The council acknowledged that the local authority’s attendance team would “support schools to ensure that they adopt a supportive and nurturing approach in the first instance before any type of legal interventions are considered”.

But the spokesperson added: “However, on the occasion that it is clear that all possible interventions have been offered, and there are no other reasonable grounds to explain the absence, the attendance team may become involved to ensure the child’s attendance improves to a more suitable level.”

Guidance to schools is that students should work in ‘bubbles’ which do not mix with other groups in order to reduce the risk of contact with too many people. Children within bubbles must stay one metre apart and keep a two-metre gap between them and students in other bubbles. Staff must maintain a two-metre distance from everyone.

This has been achieved in various ways across different schools, with some secondaries creating whole year group bubbles of up to 300 children.

A county council spokesperson said: “We are following government guidance on how to apply bubbles. Schools are fully informed and aware of this guidance and will be working in bubble sizes that suit their circumstances, but are safe.”

The director of education for the county, Jonathan Lewis, explained: “We are confident our schools are safe. Each has worked through a meticulous and robust risk assessment. We are one of the only local authorities in the country to have taken on the responsibility for final sign-off of the risk assessments carried out by our maintained schools.

“All schools, whether maintained or academy, primary, secondary or special school, are unequivocally following government guidance, and adaptations have been made to ensure our school environments are safe spaces.”

Face coverings must be worn on buses (41917695)
Face coverings must be worn on buses (41917695)

In recent weeks, the government changed its position on face coverings in secondary schools, suggesting that they could be worn in communal areas or places where social distancing was difficult. The decision is, however, up to individual schools.

Both headteachers we spoke to said they felt confident about the safety measures.

Mr Tooley said: “Schools will be 100 times safer than they were in March. Overall, I think teachers and headteachers are anxious, but understanding and prepared. We are heading into something which is unknown but a huge amount of effort has gone into making schools secure. The more warning about guidance we get the better and the more support we are given the better.

“We have decided it will be mandatory for students to wear masks in communal areas because that is when you may get mixing of groups, but in their classes they won’t be wearing masks.

“There is concern that there would be hygiene issues in terms of touching masks, taking them on and off, putting them down on surfaces and them getting contaminated so it’s potentially problematic to wear masks in classrooms.

“But the time when a population can come in contact with another is in between lessons. So we will have Years 7 and 8 in their own base in the school, where teachers go to them, so their circulation around the school will be minimised.

“When theygo to lunch or the toilet or PE lessons, there is potential for them to come into contact with other year groups. But we are also having a staggered day with different start and end times for year groups to minimise contact and we are using a one-way system to try to keep groups apart.

“There are exemptions for students with hidden disabilities who can’t cope with wearing masks, but otherwise they will be mandatory in communal area.”

Teachers will be offered the opportunity to wear visors in lessons as they will work across year group bubbles and so are at more risk.

Mr Tooley said: “We know that all the data about the risk to children suffering through Covid-19 is low, but the risk to teaching staff is significantly higher. There has been an absolute vacuum in the media about the needs of teachers and about the vulnerability of teachers.

“We are taking a better safe than sorry approach to minimise any risks. It is good the government has agreed to masks in schools.”

The preparations to make the school Covid-safe have been a “full-time job” this summer, he said, and his greatest concern was children’s mental health.

Chris Tooley, principal of The Netherhall School. Picture: Keith Heppell
Chris Tooley, principal of The Netherhall School. Picture: Keith Heppell

“This is going to be quite an alien environment for students and our top priority is for students to feel happy, confident and welcomed, and to build relationships.

“They aren’t able to move around freely or do the activities they are used to or move around the classroom like they normally would do. It’s not going to be the same at all.

“Schools are going to be safe, but we want to give students confidence about the environment they are returning to.”

Mr Tooley added: “It’s extraordinarily challenging for schools because we have a complete spectrum of staff and students who are anxious and parents who are anxious. Equally, we have parents who feel the measures being taken are a huge over-reaction.

“We have been told what needs to happen but how to do it has been left to individual schools. You have got all of the schools in Cambridgeshire with a bespoke set up developed for students, parents and staff and that is something we should be celebrating.

“Every classroom has been reconfigured, the time of school has been changed, every classroom and corridor has a hand sanitiser installed, every classroom has a bin for Covid tissues, every class will be taught with windows open for ventilation. There is so much detail that our risk assessment is 20 pages long. Every school has gone down to that level of detail.”

Mr Tooley also wanted to reassure parents who may have seen fake news stories on social media about what would happen if their child fell ill at school.

He said: “There is a scare going around on social media at the moment that if a child starts with Covid symptoms at school they will be handed over to a government agency, which is obviously nonsense. We have had parents contacting us saying please can you reassure us.

“I would like to categorically say that we will not be handing any children over to an agency. Please do not worry.”

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