December 4, 2021

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what schools could look like when children return

This Sunday the Prime Minister is expected to announce a plan for the return to school for children across Britain. While Westminster insiders have suggested that June 1 might be the first date that some pupils – possibly Year 6 – will return to school, the details remain unconfirmed and unclear (read here for all official announcements).

The importance of social distancing also remains hotly debated. This Icelandic study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, concluded that under-10s should start back first, as they are far less likely to test positive for the virus. Earlier theories had suggested that younger children simply had milder symptoms, but this study suggests they’re less likely to contract the virus. However, two new studies suggest that children can, indeed, transmit the virus, suggesting that the reopening of schools could lead to a surge in cases.

Ahead of the Government’s announcement on Sunday, I asked education experts what they thought the phased return might look like.

Life in masks: wearing PPE

Children in Dortmund, western Germany, respect social distancing and wear masks as the queue to enter their primary school – INA FASSBENDER/AFP

British schools are expected to be given three weeks’ notice to reopen, under plans being considered by ministers. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said that the Government must take responsibility for supplying adequate PPE to staff as a “prerequisite” to schools re-opening, along with publishing “workable” social distancing rules.

Official guidelines currently state that school staff do not need PPE, but teacher unions have challenged this.  

Shaun Fenton, headmaster of Reigate Grammar School and Vice Chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, imagines quite changed social behaviour around schools: “I think, across society, we will see more face masks and gloves in the coming months, including in some schools. All schools will be looking at safety measures to reduce risk such as one way corridors, staggered breaks, smaller class sizes, and a continued freeze on social gatherings such as big concerts and parents evenings. 

“School buildings differ hugely and the practical issues are different for children of different ages so there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that would work but please be in no doubt that schools are taking this very seriously.”

He added that drop-offs and pick-ups will be different, with no parents gathering at the school gates.

Social shrinking: a new school rota

One way to reduce contact between pupils is to impose a cyclical shift-style model. A cyclical model is already planned for use in Austrian schools, with classes to be split into two groups, with one attending school Monday to Wednesday and the other Thursday to Friday, then swapping the following week. Denmark has reopened primary schools with split classes, and Germany has plans to slowly do the same.

In a paper published this week, Matthew Lesh, Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, the neo-liberal think tank,  and Professor Keith Willison, Chair in Chemical Biology at Imperial College London, propose a model which would give pupils four days on, and then 10 days off. 

The model, a strategy first developed by the Weizmann Institute of Science, divides populations into two groups of households. Each group would work or attend school for four days, Monday through Thursday, and then enter a 10 day period off. So week one would be Group A at school Mon-Thurs; week two would be Group B. In this way, people in the two groups would not interact with each other.

The advantage of this approach, Willison and Lesh write, is that it would “limit social interactions, reduce pressure of public transport and enable greater social distancing in schools and workplaces by halving numbers.” 

Any person who becomes symptomatic would be likely to do so during their “off” period, limiting their ability to unintentionally spread the virus, they write. 

This model would immediately allow a large number of people who are not able to work or study to return to 40 per cent employment or education, reducing the impact of the lockdown while keeping people safe.

Prof Willison explains: “The UK is in desperate need of ground-breaking ideas for the next phase of its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The 4-10 plan emerges from Systems Biology analysis of the virus life-cycle, underpinned by mathematics, bioscience and economics. 

“We believe it could enable the UK to avoid the ‘second spike’ at the same time as reactivating the economy. The 4-10 plan is scalable, flexible, easy to understand, enforceable and can be implemented locally in schools and businesses.”

“We need to stop thinking in binary terms about this lockdown,” adds Lesh. “If we wait too long to begin phasing out measures it will do irreconcilable damage to our economy, to our communities and people’s lives. It is possible to get back to work and school, even if only on a part time basis, while keeping people safe.”

Changing spaces: under the big top

round tent floorplan –  Curl la Tourelle Head

An alternative to reducing numbers is, of course, increasing space. The London-based architecture firm Curl la Tourelle Head (CLTH), which specialises in school and medical buildings, has proposed easing social distancing by employing tents to create additional classrooms. 

“We quickly realised that if we were able to set up temporary solutions for schools and to pull out year groups from the main schools buildings, this would have an immediate liberating effect on social distancing in the main buildings themselves,” explains Wayne Head, a director of the firm. They imagine deploying currently unused wedding marquees and circus tents (the firm’s offices look out over Hampstead Head, sometime home to Zippo’s Circus) to offer both more classrooms, and space in the round, which they say would be more efficient for social distancing.

round classroom – Curl la Tourelle Head

The typical secondary school classroom, Head says, is a 55 square metre  rectangular room, which can feet more than 30 pupils but you can touch the person next to you.

“In a typical classroom, there’s no room at all – you can touch the person next to you. You couldn’t swing a cat. We set out a typical classroom with 2m separation, and you can only fit 8 pupils in a typical classroom. Even if you come down by a metre, you’fe still just got half the number of pupils you typically would expect. And with circulation, you simply can’t achieve a metre of distancing between pupils. Schools will have to institute quite elaborate changes to that.”

A round tent allows for more than 20 pupils, arranged in a horseshoe or concentric circles, allowing for a teacher to stand in the centre and have view of all of the children. 

While some schools have playing fields or grounds that could host the tents, schools in urban settings could take over adjacent streets or parks.

“We wanted it to be adaptable and scalable,” explains Head, “and use public space in a creative way – surely the neighbouring roads to schools should be pedestrianised. Why not introduce these structures there? It would bring communities together in a new way.

“It would also reuse resources which are out there in a shed somewhere – festival tents, marquees, Zippo’s Circus. These businesses are unlikely to get back to business for a year, so we can put business their way as well.”

Head acknowledges that there may be heating issues, but his firm proposes zero carbon heating sources and solar power (last year the firm designed a proposal for a completely off-grid school run off the power of the Thames in the centre of the City of London; renewable energy is a strong focus in their work).

The firm had previously proposed the Thames Tidal School in Blackfriars, London – Curl la Tourelle Head Architecture

While the firm is clear that this is just a temporary solution, it is easy to imagine that communities might get used to the repurposing of streets and parks by schools for children.

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