Coronavirus: Managing risk to get our special school ready for reintegration

with Ian Thorsteinsson, Principal, Gretton School, Cambridge

The Government has confirmed it is pressing ahead with its plans to reopen schools for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 cohorts from Monday, June 1st.

It's fair to say this has caused an uproar among schools, teaching unions, parents and also scientists. It also risks creating a two-tier education system; those who can, in theory, attend a socially-distanced school, and those who must continue to shield because of their own or a household member's susceptibility to infection, should a child bring coronavirus back into the home. It's debatable how much learning can be expected between next week and the end of the summer term. But it's going to be difficult for teachers to teach children split in two classrooms and remotely to those still at home.

We'll wait to see how many do return on June 1st. Some schools may find themselves with insufficient staff, with some also having to continue shielding for their own, or loved ones', health. A number of LAs have also said they won't be expecting their schools to reopen.

But thousands of schools are preparing as best they can for larger re-opening. One of them is Gretton School in Cambridge, a large independent special school for autistic young people, whose principal is Ian Thorsteinsson. Ian has 15 years of experience in leading specialist schools. He's passionate about achieving the highest possible standards of care and education. Ian has written for SNJ today about what he and his school are doing to prepare for June 1st.

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Assessing risk to welcome back our children by Ian Thorsteinsson

June the first is ‘open your school slightly more day’, and we’re planning and replanning.

The last few weeks have been truly incredible, they have shown the best of humanity. Where Hollywood depicts the collapse of society under similar situations, we have proved them wrong; society has held. Families, communities, organisations have sadly lost many loved and highly-regarded individuals to this horrific virus. And they still are, every day, we must remember, acknowledge and learn.

The unions are massing, the government is hunkering down. Shots are being fired across no-man’s land. In the middle, knee-deep in the metaphorical mud of conflicting advice, guidance and old fashioned emotion, stand the children, their families, carers and teachers.

Hurrying around them, with too few bulletproof vests, and unfortunately, the white camouflage netting, rather than the appropriate green and brown, are the school leaders.

That is why this is not easy. We reduced infection by locking ourselves away. Now it has been deemed time to reappear. Schools, particularly special schools,  are extremely important to get learning, development and social interaction back in our children’s lives. having children in school also enables parents to reappear, go back to work and try and initiate the turning of the wheels of commerce again. But how?

Ian Thorsteinsson, Principal, Gretton School
Ian Thorsteinsson, Principal, Gretton School

Fear, managing risk and good communication

Parents are fearful to send their child out into the world, where they will mix with others and then return to their families and loved ones. Children are also fearful. What can they expect? Are they safe? Clearly they have been subject to such clamps on their freedom, that this transition will challenge their confidence. Teaching and support staff are fearful too. Will they come to work and be infected themselves? Will they carry this virus back to their own homes and loved ones?

How can we possibly eradicate this fear? Actually, if we are not fearful, we will be careless, and increase our vulnerability to this situation. So we must do our best to harness the fear. We must make decisions that are right for us and manage our fear, in order to heighten and increase our observance of the things we know reduce the risks to our and others health.

We must be extremely clear and precise in our planning and preparation. Letting parents and families know what we’re doing, and how. Informing them honestly of the risks. Identifying what they want for their child, and seeing if this can be met within the parameters of our limitations. Without question, where a parent wishes for their child to remain home, that is absolutely what should happen if safe.

Schools have never been 'closed'

I cannot understate how important school attendance is to our students. Communicating directly with many young people has told us this, loud and clear. Of course, we have never really been closed. We have young people in throughout the lockdown who really could not manage this situation without us, which fills me with pride. We were able to step up and be there, through an incredibly challenging time. But, many more of our students are needing us, and we have to find a way to crack open the doors a little wider and let them in, as safely as possible.

Communication is critical; through open and honest formats, using all of the tools at our disposal, including social stories, which can be revisited at the young person's leisure, when they need it. Planning smaller groups, but in the context of the importance of the students’ key staff members needing to be available to them. Engaging the whole multi-disciplinary team in planning the focus of interactions on return. 

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Learning more about viral transmission

I have been learning about the physics of the aerosolisation of bodily fluids whilst flushing a toilet (one to remember after coronavirus has left our shores, I wager). I've also been learning about how quickly a classroom may fill with exhaled air, and therefore how long people can be enclosed.

But there are things for which there is no, or limited, guidance to be considered. Things such as creating one-way systems in a school with only one corridor, and the dining room at the very end of it. Social distancing in classrooms designed to be small and nurturing, and which are full of shared sensory items.

We do our best to adapt our environment and risk-assess it, alongside our interactions and transitions. Adding marquees to the grounds, as well-ventilated learning spaces, moving and sourcing outside seating where possible. We do our best.

Our plan is to blend our current offer of Google Classroom remote learning (and incredibly successful remote therapeutic offer), with teachers co-planning for the realtime on-site lessons. Keeping everyone on track with progress, ably supported by the teaching assistants and support staff. We hope to get to the point where we are able to deliver some lessons with the class in person, and any students at home, remotely in the room. Our team will continue to use their incredible flexibility, skill and commitment to continue to innovate and create.

What is clear, is that the reason our students are with us, the impact we have on their lives, is not lessened within the context of a pandemic. If anything, it has been brought into sharper focus. It has had a bright spotlight cast upon it and we will do our utmost to take this responsibility and deliver it safely.

Ian Thorsteinsson is the principal of Gretton School, Cambridge

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