Schools to prepare for a ‘new normal’

What will the 'new normal' look like for the re-opening of schools and early learning and childcare provision in Aberdeenshire?

Following the First Minister’s launch of ‘A Strategic Framework for the re-opening of schools and early learning and childcare provision in Scotland’, Aberdeenshire Council is keen to reassure families and the wider community about what this means at a local level.

The local authority’s Strategic Leadership Team has mobilised a team including headteachers and senior management as well as specialists in transport, staffing and catering to deliver a strategy for tackling changes to school buildings, routines and teaching approaches.

A number of officers have been working over the past few weeks to consider possible scenarios and now that the national guidance is in place, this group is being expanded to help inform the next steps and offer guidance and support to all head teachers.

Director of Education and Children’s Services, Laurence Findlay explained

It is clear that we will all have to continue to be flexible about learning arrangements for the foreseeable future. Safety must come first and we are doing everything we can to ensure children and young people can enjoy the best possible experience when they return to our schools in August.

Laurence is currently leading virtual weekly update meetings with all headteachers which will continue as they develop local plans in the coming weeks, supported by the overarching strategy team.

He added

In Aberdeenshire, we’re fortunate enough to benefit from a having a dedicated learning estates team, recognised at a national level for their excellent work. They have fed into national discussion around how best to operate within our ‘new normal’ and the many and varied considerations around this. There are many issues we need to resolve over the weeks ahead, including school cleaning, hygiene, catering, staffing and transport, and our in-house expertise in learning estates planning has already given us a head start.

We will also draw from lessons learned in our key worker childcare hubs, rolling out the cleaning regimes practiced in these, for example.

Aberdeenshire’s learning estates team has already carried out modelling to enable them to advise school leaders on the number of people who will be able to operate safely within each classroom space in Aberdeenshire. They have a database of all room sizes in each school and this will be matched with headteachers’ understanding of their local context and building layout.

Introducing a number of new ways of working at the same time as considering school timetabling is a hugely complex task. Parents and carers are being advised that headteachers will keep families updated about specific arrangements for each child as soon as they possibly can, on the understanding that it will take some weeks for the plans to emerge locally for each school.

Cllr Gillian Owen, Chair of the Council’s Education and Children’s Services Committee said

From August, young people will have a mix of class-based learning at school and home learning and arrangements may vary depending on the school. This is because we have over 170 schools, with varying numbers of children and young people attending and a variety of different building designs, and we want to enable head teachers to deliver the best possible solutions for their local communities.

Staffing and social distancing requirements will impact schools in different ways as we work to ensure the health and safety of all children, young people and staff. It is important that we take the time to put detailed plans in place for each setting.

Vice-Chair Cllr Rosemary Bruce added

We’re very pleased with how well schools have adapted to providing home and online learning, and we’re sure they will make a success of delivering this phased return too. We’d also like to take the opportunity to thank teaching staff, support staff, parents and carers as well as young people for all your hard work so far. This hasn’t been easy for anyone and it’s lovely to see so many examples of communities coming together and making the best of a challenging time.

It is appreciated parents and carers, as well as staff and employers, will have many questions about the months ahead, not all of which can be answered yet.

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What will the ‘new normal’ look like?

From the start of the new school session in August 2020, young people will have a mix of class-based learning at school and home learning.
The phased return to school settings will be offered to staff and pupils who are not shielding, self-isolating and present with no symptoms of COVID-19.

The main driver for the phased return to school settings is to offer face-to-face education within school buildings whilst minimising the interaction between groups of pupils. To do this, settings must

  • Reduce the size of classes and keep children in small groups without mixing with others
  • Stagger break and lunchtimes, as well as putting in place clear protocols for drop-offs and pick-ups
  • Increase the frequency of cleaning, reduce the use of shared items and utilise outdoor space

Class sizes will need to be reduced and/or the number of year groups attending at any one time will need to alter. This will have an impact upon family groupings, transport and teaching approaches.

Whilst the local authority had anticipated successful delivery of an increase to 1140 hours of early learning and childcare (ELC) for all 3 – 5-year-olds by August 2020, the reduction in available capacity in comparison to the scale of the estimated demand will make this unachievable in the short term. Capacity will have to be reduced to respect and enable appropriate social distancing and mitigation for potential infection spread, making use of the direct/easy access to additional outdoor space almost all our setting spaces have.

There will be a continued focus on working in partnership with the independent sector to deliver ELC and ensure a coordinated approach.

Best practice guidance will be developed in order to support the most appropriate deployment of staff, inside and outdoors.

Ensuring appropriate arrangements are in place for children and young people with additional support needs is also a key focus of Aberdeenshire’s strategy work.

Considerations around an increased focus on outdoor learning are also being thought through, including providing shelter, additional clothing and equipment and further investment in training for staff.

Planning around facilities management will include an increased focus on signage, and careful planning of entrance and exit points as well as access routes (particularly for larger schools). There is also work ongoing to consider the use of staff rooms, offices and toilets as well as classroom layouts and ensuring rooms are well ventilated.

For more information about local arrangements, parents are asked to discuss concerns with their child’s school in the first instance, allowing staff time to put the plans in place which will enable them to offer details of arrangements for each child.

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