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Focus on education: The Royal Borough’s approach during lockdown 

On March 18 Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced all schools would close indefinitely to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Now primary schools are expected to open on June 1 for certain year groups, reporter Amy Horsfield talks to Cllr Stuart Carroll (Con, Boyn Hill), deputy chair for children’s services, about how schools have adapted during lockdown.

As coronavirus spread across the world, everyone’s daily lives were thrown into upheaval and for students studying towards GCSE and A-level exams, or getting used to their first year at school, everything was about to change within a matter of days.

Behind the scenes the Royal Borough had been working on ways to ensure everyone’s education could continue as the situation in England worsened and the closure of schools became inevitable.

“What we initially did as a council was to coordinate with every school,” said Cllr Stuart Carroll (Con, Boyn Hill) deputy chair for of cabinet, adult social care, children’s services, health and mental health.

He added: “We made sure every school was contacted to ensure all schools were ready for lockdown.”

As businesses across the world have adapted work life to allow employees to continue their jobs in quarantine, education resources have also gone online as teachers are hosting virtual lessons to connect with students.

“All schools have coordinated brilliantly and I want to thank all the heads of all schools,” said Cllr Carroll.

Everyone has been pouring their energy into ensuring ‘children can get a formal education’ despite the lockdown measures forcing schools to close and exams to be cancelled.

Teachers at schools across the borough are also offering one-to-one tuition to help students in need of extra support.

“On the whole we have seen parents respond well.

“We are getting positive feedback,” said Cllr Carroll.

The council worked hard to ensure every child in the borough had access to the equipment they need to continue their studies at home ‘to enable children to continue to get an education in a totally different scenario.’

“We have had some issues with children who have no access to the internet.

“It was a consideration from day one to overcome that barrier quickly,” Cllr Carroll added.

For children who would normally be able to use the internet at school or at public libraries, which have also been closed during the pandemic, the council have made provisions to ensure they have the resources they need.

“Laptops can be provided to children who don’t have this access.”

The council have also provided lunch vouchers to families who rely on free school meals their children would normally be given at school.

After the Government closed schools across the country, it was announced children of key workers would be allowed to attend to enable their parents to continue their essential jobs.

Cllr Carroll said: “Since the beginning a very small proportion of children have needed to go to school under key worker criteria.”

To facilitate this schools have been working with a skeleton staff to care for the children of key workers during lockdown.

“We have rallied with a good spirit,” Cllr Carroll commented.

On Sunday, May 10 Boris Johnson revealed the Government’s three-step plan to begin easing lockdown restrictions in England.

This included the opening schools for children in reception, year one and year six with a reduced number of students and strict social distancing measures in place.

However, the plan has received a mixed response with some teachers and health workers warning it is too soon to open schools and saying they do not have the space to impose social distancing.

Speaking about the decision, Cllr Carroll said: “I can of course understand the desire to see children back in the classroom and the importance to parents who have to juggle being parents and educators.

“There is no substitute for being in class which is important for socialising and how children transform into adults.”

But he added that it’s vital the right precautions are taken to ensure everyone at school continues to be protected as much as possible.

“I think it’s important we understand how children can be safe in class but also members of staff.”

Earlier this month the Advertiser spoke to the executive head of Lowbrook Academy in Cox Green and the Holy Trinity School in Cookham, Dave Rooney, who expressed concerns about whether schools were properly prepared to open with the required social distancing in place.

He also expressed concerns about the health of staff members who may be vulnerable from contracting COVID-19 from pupils.

Cllr Carroll acknowledged these concerns saying ‘different schools have different dimensions, surface areas and sizes’ making it harder for some institutions to social distance pupils and staff.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “The latest scientific advice indicates it will be safe for more children to return from June 1, but we will continue to limit the overall numbers in school and introduce protective measures to prevent transmission.

“This marks the first step towards having all young people back where they belong, but we will only take further steps when the time is right.”

Cllr Carroll has also written to the education secretary Gavin Williamson seeking additional clarifications on Government guidance so the council can be fully prepared. 

He added: “I think its important Government is led by science and evidence.”

Cllr Carroll acknowledged: “With the June 1 date there might be nervousness about how this is going to work.”

He added: “Our priority is to keep children and members of staff safe. That is absolutely critical.

“We will keep working with schools to understand the requirements.”

As the Government prepares to move the country onto the next stage of ease the nation out of lockdown, the council is continuing its works to ensure everyone the borough introduces best and strictest measures to protect and shield residents from the virus.

He urged teachers and parents to get in touch with him if they are concerned about the reopening of schools. 

He added: “I am very happy to speak to anyone.”

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