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Schools to scrap social distancing in September

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 24/06/2020 Camilla Turner

(Video by Press Association)

Social distancing will not be applied in schools and "bubbles" will be expanded to enable all pupils to return to their classes full-time in September, the Government will announce next week.

Pupils will not be expected to keep two metres or even one metre apart at all times while in the school building, The Telegraph understands.

Instead, schools will be asked to focus on limiting the extent to which children mix outside of their class or year group and on implementing strict hygiene regimes.

The solution to reopening schools will involve groups of children being placed in "bubbles"- as is already the case in primaries - and is seen by the Government as removing the need for social distancing.

Social distancing measures as a child studies on a marked table at Kempsey Primary School in Worcester - PA © Provided by The Telegraph Social distancing measures as a child studies on a marked table at Kempsey Primary School in Worcester - PA

The Prime Minister told the Commons this week that primary and secondary schools will reopen in September with "full attendance", but declined to explain how this will be achieved.

His remarks came as ministers face rising criticism over their failure to reopen schools ahead of shops, cinemas, theme parks and zoos.

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“It is not a good look if we are rushing to open pubs and beer gardens while the vast majority of schools are not open,” one of the Government’s scientific advisers told The Telegraph.

 The Education Secretary will formally announce the arrangements for September next week but on Wednesday a source familiar with the plans said there is now a consensus that “it will not be possible for schools to reopen for all pupils if a one metre or one metre plus social distancing rule is applied”.

Gallery: How countries are edging out of Covid-19 lockdown (Photo Services)

Primary schools will be told that their current “bubbles” of 15 pupils can be made larger to include entire classes. Meanwhile secondary schools will be able to take a more flexible approach to forming their bubbles, which could include an entire year group.

This is in recognition of the fact that secondary school pupils study different combinations of subjects and are put into different sets within subjects, so it is harder to keep one class together all the time.

The “bubbles” of pupils will spend their lunch breaks and play times together, and could also arrive and leave school at the same time to prevent them from mixing with other groups.

Pupils will still be expected to maintain social distancing rules when travelling to and from school, and in local shops, it is understood.

A scientist is pictured working during a visit by Britain's Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (unseen), to Oxford Vaccine Group's laboratory facility at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, west of London on June 24, 2020, on his visit to learn more about the group's work to establish a viable vaccine against coronavirus COVID-19. (Photo by Steve Parsons / POOL / AFP) (Photo by STEVE PARSONS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) A scientist is pictured working during a visit by Britain's Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (unseen), to Oxford Vaccine Group's laboratory facility at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, west of London on June 24, 2020, on his visit to learn more about the group's work to establish a viable vaccine against coronavirus COVID-19. (Photo by Steve Parsons / POOL / AFP) (Photo by STEVE PARSONS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

School hygiene regimes will include encouraging regular hand washing and implementing enhanced cleaning regimes where surfaces and doorknobs are regularly wiped down.

Children will also be told to follow the “catch it, bin it, kill it” mantra to stop the spread of germs meaning they should cough and sneeze into a tissue then throw it away immediately.

Elsewhere in the UK, ministers have already set out their plans on how schools will return to normal. Earlier this week, the Scottish education secretary John Swinney said that schools will reopen on August 11 with no physical distancing provided the spread of coronavirus remains under control.

Meanwhile, schools are set to reopen in Northern Ireland on August 24 with social distancing of one metre rather than two.

Key Stage 2 pupils from academic years 3 and 4 wash their hands after taking part in outdoor physical exercise, in order to minimise the risk of passing on Coronavirus at Willowpark Primary Academy in Oldham, north-west England on June 18, 2020, as primary schools to recommence education for Reception, Years 1 and Year 6 classes, alongside priority groups. (Photo by OLI SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images) Key Stage 2 pupils from academic years 3 and 4 wash their hands after taking part in outdoor physical exercise, in order to minimise the risk of passing on Coronavirus at Willowpark Primary Academy in Oldham, north-west England on June 18, 2020, as primary schools to recommence education for Reception, Years 1 and Year 6 classes, alongside priority groups. (Photo by OLI SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the fixation on whether children need to stay two metres or one metre apart in school is a “red herring”.

“Inside schools, children are at a lower risk of infection and the solution is bubbles,” he said, adding that the “terms of engagement” with officials from the Department for Education (DfE) are now focused around setting a limit for class size.

Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts which represents academies, said that the idea that extra building such as town halls could be hired to allow pupils to spread out more is “nonsense”. 

“This is clearly being talked about by people who don’t know anything about education,” she said.

An employee at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire paints social distancing lines outside the Amur Tigers enclosure, as the zoo prepares to reopen to the public from Monday June 29, as further coronavirus lockdown restrictions are lifted in England. (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images) © PA Wire/PA Images An employee at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire paints social distancing lines outside the Amur Tigers enclosure, as the zoo prepares to reopen to the public from Monday June 29, as further coronavirus lockdown restrictions are lifted in England. (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)

“The logistics of identifying other buildings that are safe and fit for purpose would be such a huge exercise. Even if you did all of that where would you get all the extra teachers from?”

 Ms Cruddas said ministers must build a “coherent narrative” that creates public trust and confidence that the “bubble” approach in lieu of social distancing is safe for September.

 “Right now primaries aren’t being asked to use social distancing because bubbles and other protective measures are in place,” she said. “That is not well understood.”

Dr Gavin Morgan, an expert in education psychology at University College London who sits on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said the “biggest battle” ministers face is winning the trust of parents and teachers.

He said the Government should embark on an information campaign to convince the public that schools can open safely without social distancing measures in place.

“There needs to be a concerted effort to portray the fact that the risk to children from catching coronavirus which is minute to non-existent, but there is a profound risk to being out of school,” Dr Morgan said.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We will publish further information and guidance next week to help schools prepare for a full return in September. We are working across Government and with the sector to ensure these plans are fully in place.”

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Stay at home as much as possible to stop coronavirus spreading - here is the latest government guidance. If you think you have the virus, don't go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn't available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland, anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.

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