Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance for School Governors

Guidance for Governors on school reopening

On 10th May 2020 the Prime Minister announced a roadmap towards recovery when he addressed the nation on the Coronavirus. This included, at the earliest by 1st June 2020, to get primary pupils back into schools, in stages, beginning with Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 and with the ambition that secondary pupils facing exams next year would get at least some time with their teachers before the summer break. He went on to say that detailed guidance on how to make it work in schools would be set out in the very near future.

Summary of DfE Guidance

The first phased return of pupils from 1st June 2020 will be children in Nursery, Reception, Year 1 & Year 6, as well as vulnerable pupils or children of critical workers who may already be attending primary schools.  For secondary schools, there is an expectation that the majority of  students will not return until September 2020, although from 15th June 2020, Years 10 and 12 will be allowed ‘some contact’ to help them prepare for their examinations next year (see the DfE guidance for more details).

The guidance has been provided to  support senior leaders in making a decision as to whether they can open their schools safely having implemented a number of protective measures.

The final decision is an operational decision taken by senior leaders in maintained schools taking account of the DfE and LA guidance and the individual school’s context. However, Governing Bodies/Trust Boards remain accountable and are responsible for all decisions made and it is expected that  school leaders will formally consult with them on how to plan for the safe opening of their settings.

For those on the board of a MAT or a stand-alone academy, it will be necessary for them to scrutinise their Scheme of Delegation (SoD) to ascertain whether this has been a decision which can be delegated to Headteachers/Heads of School/Executive Leaders.  If it has, it is recommended that the local governing board should be consulted on the Risk Assessment as well as the Trust Board as the former might well have better knowledge and understanding of the context of the school.  This might, therefore, lead to some schools within a MAT not opening whilst others might as each individual school’s decision would be based on its context and having been discussed with the Chief Executive Officer, the Trust Board and, where appropriate, the governors on the Local Governing Board.    However, with the Trust Board being the legal employer for all its MAT schools, any school which decided to go against the Board’s decision not to reopen it as it had been deemed that it was not safe to do so must give a good account of their decision to ignore this.

Therefore, to clarify, the Headteacher/Executive Leader has the responsibility because (s)he knows the unique circumstances of their own school – its layout, the availability of its staff, the number of children within its eligible cohort, where the risks lie and how best to mitigate them.

Such a decision should be based on a Health & Safety Risk Assessment; this is a fluid document that should be monitored and reviewed on a regular basis. By sharing this document and any subsequent action plans, the decision-making process becomes collaborative with the senior leaders and the Governors/Trustees working together to ensure the best possible outcome for the staff, children and their families.

The role of Governors/Trustees

The role of a governor/trustee is to provide strategic leadership, monitoring & financial probity.  Any operational decisions are the responsibility of the senior leadership team. At this time, Governors/Trustees are asked to familiarise themselves with the guidance from the DfE and the Local Authority in order that they are able to act as a sounding board for senior leaders in their preparations for the wider opening of their school and to  challenge the robustness of the Risk Assessment.  Before pupils and staff can return, they should be confident that all measures have been put in place to address identified risks – i.e. that it is safe for the school to be reopened to those in the eligible categories.

Do Governing Boards/Trust Boards need to have a meeting to discuss schools’ reopening?

In short, yes probably.  The guidance doesn’t specifically relate to governing bodies as it is operational guidance but there are aspects of the guidance referring to strategy and policy which is within your remit. It is, therefore, advisable that an extraordinary meeting, held virtually, is held in order that Governors/Trustees are given the opportunity to test the robustness of the Risk Assessment and to plan for the reopening accordingly.  Therefore, they should have access to the Risk Assessment in advance of the meeting; this document should supply them with sufficient information to give them either assurance that it is safe to open the school on or after 1st June 2020 or that the risks are such that, at this time, it would not be safe for children and staff to be invited  back into school. Should the latter decision be made, the Local Authority should be advised.

What Governors/Trustees should be discussing:

Communication & consultation strategy

Communication of the strategy for reopening is key and school leaders should  take account of feedback from parents, staff and unions.  In questioning the approach to inviting children back, it is reasonable for governors/trustees to ask questions of senior leaders regarding the communication & consultation strategy on reopening.

It is anticipated by now that schools will have written to parents advising them of the potential plans for the wider reopening of their child(ren)’s school, giving them assurance of the measures being taken to keep staff and children safe and to survey them on whether they or not their child(ren) (if eligible) will be returning.

As with staff, there will be parents who will be concerned about sending their children back to school.  The guidance states that, from the week commencing 1 June 2020 at the earliest, primary schools are asked to welcome back children in Nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6, alongside priority groups.  Secondary schools, sixth form and further education colleges are being asked to offer some face-to-face support to supplement the remote education of Year 10 and Year 12 students who are due to take key exams next year, alongside the full time provision they are offering to priority groups.

Whilst there will be no penalty for families who do not send their children to school, families will be strongly encouraged to take up these places – unless the child or a family member is shielding or the child is particularly vulnerable due to an underlying condition.  Governors/Trustees should discuss the strategy with the school leader and offer to support it in whatever way they can; for example, sending a letter to parents supporting the decision.

Health & Safety

The safety of the children and staff in the school should be paramount and the guidance from the DfE on implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings contains detailed advice for settings on:

  • Regular cleaning and deep cleaning, including supplies of cleaning and hand-washing products
  • testing and tracing
  • PPE (personal protective equipment)
  • what settings should do in response to a case of coronavirus being confirmed

These measures, along with hand-washing, cleaning, and self-isolation, will lower the risk of transmission of the virus.

The guidance from the DfE does not, however, supersede any legal obligations relating to health and safety, employment or equalities and it is important that, as an employer, schools/trusts continue to comply with their existing obligations, including those relating to individuals with protected characteristics. It contains non-statutory guidance to take into account when complying with these existing obligations. When considering how to apply this guidance, schools/trust must take into account agency workers, contractors and other people, as well as employees.

It is recommended that Lead Governors/Trustees for Health & Safety ensure that a H&S check has been undertaken on the school site as much of it might have been unused in the past few months. The DfE guidance also requires that adjustments are made to the fire drill and that it is practised when children return to school.

Safeguarding

Governors/Trustees are advised that a revised model Child Protection Policy was produced on 19th May 2020 for the Summer Term and to cover the COVID-19 response period; this should be adapted to meet the need of the individual school and approved as a matter of urgency and for schools to upload it on to their website.

The principles of safeguarding still apply as does the duty on all staff to protect children. However, the existing safeguarding arrangements have been adapted to ensure that schools effectively safeguard all children during this time, whether they are attending on site or learning at home.

Staffing & staff wellbeing

Governors/Trustees will be all too aware that many staff members will have concerns on the wider  reopening of schools to larger numbers of pupils and what it might mean for their health and mental wellbeing.  By consulting with them during the preparation of the Risk Assessment and any subsequent actions plan, it is hoped that they will be provided by sufficient information to assure them that adequate measures have been put in place for their protection.

Headteacher/Executive Leaders & Senior Leaders will have been expected to have made numerous decisions and communications through very difficult times over the past few weeks and these will continue.  They may have already been faced with opposition from staff and parents, and they may feel strongly about the measures that they are having to put in place.  Governors, especially the Chair, should be there to support their senior leaders and their welfare as well as ensuring that the new working practices promote a good work/life balance for all staff.

Curriculum delivery strategy

Both the LA and the DFE have made it clear that no school will be penalised if they are unable to offer a broad and balanced curriculum during this period of partial closure and lockdown. However, most Essex schools have made every possible effort to provide some form of high quality home learning opportunities for their pupils.

With the primary schools now opening more widely, many school staff will be needed to support classroom learning which may mean that it will be more difficult to maintain the same level of remote learning for those year groups not eligible to return or those children who are eligible but whose parents have decided to keep them at home. Governors/Trustees will need to be assured that support and resources are being provided to parents for those children and that the critical worker and vulnerable children groups are continued to be supported.

What you should not be discussing:

Any operational issues should be dealt with by your senior leadership team.  There will be a number of issues within the Risk Assessment such as the logistics of pick up times or classroom space  which will be decided within the school context but which will inform the governing board  to allow them to have a full discussion about the approach to opening the school which either is in line with the DfE guidance or, if not, identifies the risk factors which have led to the alternative approach to the decision made by the school leaders.

What else should be on your agenda?

  • Receiving monthly financial data and understanding any financial issues arising around additional provisions that are having to be provided at this time
  • Approving and submitting budgets for the next academic year (academies).
  • Are Internal Control Evaluations taking place during the term to ensure that an internal scrutiny report can be submitted by 31st December (academies)
  • Monitoring health, safety, and site maintenance issues where premises are not in use or being used less than normal
  • Understanding the impact of staffing issues and the structure for September 2020
  • Planning for how and when school or trust development plans can be revised
  • Receiving plans for the admission of Reception children in September 2020, transition of Yr6 to secondary education and assessment of those students who would usually at this time been taking national examinations
  • Receiving information on how any admissions appeals are going to take place and how many appeals have been lodged

Final Thoughts

Being a Governor/Trustee has never been easy – this has brought your role to a whole new level of responsibility – school leaders will be depending on your wisdom, knowledge, skills, diverse backgrounds and experience to help them come to the right decision for their school and for you to endorse that decision having thoroughly scrutinised the Risk Assessment and subsequent action plans. They will welcome your support over the coming months as will the staff and the families of the children within your school.

If you need advice about governance during this time, we are here to help, please give our expert advisers a ring or drop us an email and we will get back to you.