How schools in Oldham are preparing to reopen
Reporter: Charlotte Green
Date published: 01 September 2020
Headteacher Rob Higgins at Blue Coat secondary school in Oldham
Schools across England are reopening today (Tuesday), but the pandemic means that it will be very different for returning pupils.
In Blue Coat school, an oversubscribed secondary school in Oldham town centre, the main challenge has been around the logistics of how to separate and keep safe its 1,750 pupils and 150 staff.
Maximising space has been the biggest issue for leaders preparing for all pupils to return to the Egerton Street academy on September 1.
Gone are the days of specialised department blocks for different subjects, instead buildings have been assigned for each year group.
“We have moved to a school within a school model. We keep our year groups in support bubbles, once they are in their bubbles they can mix a bit more,” headteacher Rob Higgins explains.
Trying to implement two metre social distancing would be impossible in a school like Blue Coat, where there are up to 32 pupils in a class.
Instead teaching areas have been put in every available space, including the canteen and the sports hall which now has rows of chairs and desks positioned underneath basketball hoops.
Computers have been installed in music and science rooms, allowing students to be taught maths, English, science, IT and other subjects all in the same classroom.
Mr Higgins said: “There has been a real transformation on the site itself.
“We have had to convert every nook and cranny, we’ve had to convert the sports hall into a classroom.
“As children arrive in a classroom they’ll take their face masks off that they’re using to walk around, they’ll sanitise their hands, they’ll sit down in a designated seat.
“We know where every child is sat at any given time. If ever we had to do a track and trace we’d be able to do it very, very quickly.
“There’s different routes for every year group so they never mix. The teachers move around, so the teachers come to them.”
Even the library has seen a revamp, with a teaching area put in place in the main atrium, while books will be taken out on a ‘click and collect’ basis rather than browsing the shelves.
Strict seating plans are in place for every room, so teachers know who has been sitting next to who, and which pupils might need to self isolate if and when a case of coronavirus is confirmed.
Complicated one-way systems marked out by tape and spray painted arrows aim to keep the constant stream of students moving between classes separated and contained within their year group ‘bubbles’.
A bubble can be upwards of 240 pupils – but school staff say they’ll be able to use their knowledge of pupils’ friends and whereabouts to inform who needs to isolate.
“We’ll be able to identify who have they sat next to in class, how have they got to school and then the third question is also, who do they hang out with, who are their friends,” said Joanne Clague, the school business manager:
“What you don’t want to cause is hysteria, you don’t want to cause panic.”
Parts of the school campus highlighted in cross-hatched red paint mark ‘no man’s land’ areas for pupils.
This includes the main playground, which is divided in two for different year groups, and where football will have to be banned as it can’t be guaranteed only one ‘bubble’ will be handling a ball.
Assemblies will be broadcast over video link directly into classrooms and – as per government guidance – pupils will have to wear masks in the hallways.
Teacher’s chairs are wrapped in plastic to make them easier to clean, and the numbers of staff in each room will be limited.
The small lodge at the school gates normally used for band practice has been designated for pupils who need medical treatment, and who are displaying symptoms of coronavirus.
There they will be able to be separated from their class and supported, although the school will not be routinely testing pupils for the virus.
Blue Coat, like other secondary schools around the country, has received just ten test kits from the government which are to be used as a last resort, if they believe a child won’t be able to get tested locally.
“If there was one case it wouldn’t necessarily mean that an entire bubble has to go home, and we’d get the guidance about that,” Mr Higgins added.
“It’s hard enough transitioning to a new school at the best of times.
"I think it’s important that we get the children back to school without talking about Covid.
“If a child was to do something that puts the risk and health and safety of themselves and their year group, their family and the staff at risk we’d deal with that very, very seriously.
“Children are going to have to take more responsibility for their actions.”
In Lyndhurst Primary School, in Hollinwood, headteacher Lizzie Egan-Walsh believes that rather than being afraid, many children relish the responsibility that comes with keeping ‘Covid safe’.
She explains that kids being taught through lockdown leapt at the chance to show red or yellow cards to fellow pupils – and even teachers – for not obeying the one-way system through the school.
“The children are actually very resilient and very flexible,” she explains.
“The children that were in during lockdown adapted really well to the new way of working.
“We support our staff, it doesn’t mean they are not still anxious and we are all learning as we go.
“Teachers are also parents who have children.
"I am a parent myself with a child in an Oldham primary school, and I was shielding all throughout lockdown.”
Year group and classroom ‘bubbles’ are also going to be a feature of life at Lyndhurst, which alongside its displays of colourful pupil work now has hand sanitising stations installed every few metres.
“The main question parents ask in Oldham at the moment, is can we stop your child from getting Covid and the answer to that is, I can’t,” Ms Egan-Walsh says.
“It’s about minimising risk, doing the right thing and following the guidance. Until there is a vaccine we are all living with this.
“I don’t think we need to be heavy handed with parents, we need to be empathetic.”
Both schools say the cost of kitting out their facilities to protect pupils and meet health and safety requirements has been phenomenal.
Christine Ellis, director of operations at the Cranmer Trust which runs Blue Coat says that getting the school Covid-safe and ready for pupils to return has cost in the tens of thousands.
“It’s astronomical,” she adds.
Items such as hand sanitiser, pedal bins, as well as potentially higher staff costs and extra cleaning bills are piling pressure on both their budgets.
But the leaders of both schools also agree that kids are desperate to return to normal with some pupils having been out of the halls since March.
“We can’t wait to get the children back, staff are chomping at the bit,” Mr Higgins added.
“There are some staff who are nervous and anxious, as there are pupils but a lot of them can’t wait.”
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