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A safe space for learning; written with Jan Dubiel

This blog was co written with Jan Dubiel and is based on our thoughts which have developed following many discussions with practitioners in the UK and internationally and experts in occupational health, Covid19 management and health and safety law.

The much-anticipated guidance supporting EYFS provision in the June retransition finally crept silently into the public domain on Sunday lunchtime on 26th May. You can access it here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/preparing-for-the-wider-opening-of-early-years-and-childcare-settings-from-1-june

 While it reinforces – and indeed replicates – an existing mass of pre-published advice and guidance, it does finally provide specific recommendations and expectations for the EYFS provision. Much of the broad content is already largely in the public domain. It follows the understandably anxious discussion in the EYFS community and the manifestation of this in the rush of online conferences, webinars and social media exchanges; not to mention virtual trips to Danish Kindergartens where the retransition has now been established for a number of weeks.

In the previous blog http://assure.education/blog/i-don-t-want-to-burst-your-bubble  the context and rationale for the bubble were discussed and the medical necessity for taking steps to mitigate the risk of cross-infection. It is worth repeating some of the central considerations and challenges that we currently find ourselves in:

  • Schools and settings will need to make complex decisions about the nature and management of the retransition and how this will be organised. The core of this will be balancing the safety of children and staff with entitlement and the importance of access to provision.
  • While actions taken do not completely eliminate the risk of cross-infection, every single one marginally reduces the risk and as these accumulate, they will feed into the decision on how to reconcile the above.
  • While some of the measures taken will appear to be Draconian and fundamentally alter the nature of EYFS provision (albeit temporarily), we need to acknowledge that we are very deliberately erring on the side of caution. We are doing this for good reason, Covid-19 is a highly contagious virus that is potentially fatal to some people and it has become a global pandemic. However, as the situation develops, we will be able to review and modify these measures as the risk of infection decreases

A central consideration for an effective and responsible retransition in EYFS provision will be how the learning environment is structured and how leaders will strike the balance between the safety of children, their families and staff and the opportunities for learning and teaching. We need to be clear that under the current conditions it will not possible – nor responsible – to maintain a typical EYFS learning environment with multiple Areas of Provision all carefully equipped with a wide range of resources, tools and materials.

The guidance does provide some explicit steer on this, and it has implications for how we organise our environment, which resources we use and how we manage their use.

Critically, it reminds us of the following:

“Settings should use reasonable endeavours to deliver the EYFS learning and development requirements as far as possible in the current circumstances, as set out in the guidance on the temporary changes to the EYFS requirements in light of coronavirus (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/early-years-foundation-stage-framework--2 ). This means continuing to provide an environment that invites learning across all 7 areas as far as is practicable during this time”

We retain a responsibility to deliver the EYFS and meet the individual, and situation-specific, needs of the children we work with. The overarching principle of the ‘enabling environment’ remains at the core of this and in order to deliver the EYFS ‘as far as practicable’ an albeit reconstructed learning environment needs to be a part of that.

The risk posed by Covid-19 and the necessity to ensure we do everything we can to limit the possibilities of this is not a reason to reconstruct the environment to such an extent that it is wholly inappropriate. Despite some of the discussion of ‘Socially Distanced’ individual desks for children, this is neither necessary nor acceptable in EYFS provision. It has been accepted that there will not be Social Distancing within individual Bubbles in EYFS classes and so there still needs to be access to Areas of Provision for important aspects of both Child-Led and Adult Directed episodes of learning and teaching.

Part of the process to mitigate the risk of cross-infection is to prioritise hygiene and cleaning so that all materials, resources and surfaces are continually sterilised. In Danish Kindergartens all tools and resources are rigorously cleaned at least every day, sometimes even more, so from a practical level this needs to be considered in terms of logistics and manageability. This then, raises issues regarding some of the more familiar resources that might be difficult to keep cleaning:

“Public health advice is to remove all soft toys, and any toys that are hard to clean, such as those with intricate parts. Where practicable, remove soft furnishings, for example, pillows, bean bags and rugs.”

Staple resources that children use daily will need to be managed so that whilst their use remains important and accessible, the risk of transmission of the virus through sharing is minimised as much as possible. Equally, some of the most familiar materials in EYFS provision may, for the time being at least, present a risk of cross-infection. This risk will need to be neutralised by their removal, or by specific procedures (such as quarantining). The lifespan of the virus on uncleaned materials can be as much as 5 days in some cases, so careful decisions will need to be taken to ensure that the importance of the resources is weighed against the risk it poses.

“Consider new approaches that will need to be taken to minimise the sharing of resources between groups, for example for painting, sticking, cutting and outdoor construction activities, which should be thoroughly cleaned before and after use by different groups. Malleable resources, such as play dough, should not be shared between groups and public health advice is that, as sandpits cannot be thoroughly cleaned between uses, they should not be used at this time. Consider how resources can be used safely and in which circumstances and which items it might be more practical to remove during this time”

So what does this mean in practice when we consider our retransition EYFS environment?

 

A balanced decision

The decision we take over the next week or so as EYFS providers will be ones that stretch and challenge our thinking to new limits. Having to consider the central tension between safety and effective provision is something that will need to be informed by local and individual circumstances and what is genuinely possible, manageable and appropriate.

 Although the guidance provides an expectation, peppered with public health advice, it will be incumbent on all of us to interpret and deliver that in the most effective way that we see fit. We will all need to develop a careful confidence in making those judgements and ensuring that all staff and parents understand why. Lines of communication – however virtual – have never been more important.

 

Resources are not the Curriculum

Our role as educators remains the same – we are responsible for ensuring that children make progress, specifically within the framework of the statutory EYFS. Although this is now existing in a context in which health and hygiene have become critically focussed, we will continue to do the same job, have the same conversations and reflection that inform our provision.

Resources are a means to this; a vehicle for providing experiences and learning episodes, they are not an end in themselves. Given the challenges that a Covid-19 context provides, it is an apposite time to consider and reassert that the nature of learning is more complex and not totally defined by the tools and resources we enable children to use. The risks posed by cross-infection will mean that it will not be responsible to provide many of the resources with which children will be familiar. This does not mean that effective learning, and teaching, is not possible without them, far from it. By focussing on the nature of Curriculum (what we want children to learn), we will discover new and creative ways of utilising new and different ways of ensuring that they have access to this. While we may lament the (hopefully temporary) loss of resources such as Role Play, sand, Mud Kitchens and puppets, this does not that any aspect of the Curriculum is not deliverable without them.

If we start here, with children’s needs and how this is defined by current realities then the resources that are safely available will shape themselves around this. In this blog, https://www.early-education.org.uk/news/guest-blog-time-key-stage-1-developmentally-appropriate-julie-fisher  Julie Fisher describes the kinds of needs and opportunities that children are likely to require. Storytelling, expression, communication, opportunities for emotional literacy are all going to be important aspects of a necessary curriculum of retransition. This is not limited to, nor defined by, particular resources.

 

Practical Considerations

As stated earlier it is neither necessary nor appropriate to ‘Victorianise’ EYFS provision and introduce an individual ‘desk-based’ pedagogy due to the challenges of Covid-19. Children will still be able, and will still need to be able, to access Areas of Provision to support learning and opportunities for teaching. There is no defined list of what these should or should not be, but as stated earlier they will need to be established in order to facilitate the learning that is going to be necessary.

Each Area of Provision will need to be carefully audited for the resources that it provides, and needs to balance issues of manageability with the purpose it will serve. The key considerations in this will be:

  • Are they cleanable on a daily basis?
  • Will daily cleaning be manageable and possible given the logistics and practical context of the provision?
  • Are there resources in this Area of Provision that cannot be cleaned regularly but are considered critical for the provision? In that case, can a system of quarantine for the required number of days be established within the daily procedure?
  • Are there sufficient and appropriate resources to enable children to access the key aspects of the curriculum?
  • Are there resources which may be shared by children? If so can this be either minimised or individualised to prevent this? If not, will procedures be established that ensure they are cleaned immediately after use?
  • Is it possible or desirable to provide an individualised version of this resource for each child?
  • What is the safest way I can support the learning this resource provides?

 

Quarantine

If you consider a resource absolutely essential, but it can’t be washed (for example books) and you have concerns about the virus being transmitted on the resource, it may be useful to put the resources in quarantine for a week to avoid the risk of cross-infection. Some settings have already started to divide their books into 5 sets and will make one set available each day.

 

Washing

Ensure that all resources which can be washed are washed daily in hot soapy water.  Anything which can be washed in a washing machine should be washed at a high temperature, daily.

 

Our final piece of advice would be to remember that just because you may have to remove something now, it doesn’t mean it will be gone from your provision forever. We may be able to return items to the provision in gradual steps as we learn more about the virus and are better equipped to make judgements about what is safe.

Remember that the bubble itself does not guarantee children’s safety, so every step you take to make your environment as COVID safe as you can is crucial.

 

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