I don't want to burst your bubble....
In my last blog I shared some of the issues which heads, nursery managers and childminders face now that the government is asking them to open for all children in EYFS from the 1st June. Over the last two weeks since this announcement I have been working with leaders, teachers and experts in child development, education, occupational health, health and safety law and listening to experts in managing COVID 19 to try to develop guidance to support schools and settings.
You will find a COVID 19 tab on my website with some information which I have kind permission to share as long as full credit is given. This guidance applies to all staff, including those in schools and settings, you may find it useful. There are also videos of discussions which I have had with my colleague Jan Dubiel about some of the issues which are facing those working with young children in schools and settings. You may find this useful.
The discussions I have had with colleagues and professionals have helped to shape the thoughts in the blog which follows. They’re too numerous to mention but particular thanks must go to Professor Anne Harris at LSBU, Dr Tony Williams at Working Fit, Helen Parsons MSc RN SCPHN of Kings College Hospital, London, Dr Matt Butler of Addenbrookes hospital, Cambridge Jan Dubiel and David Wright.
First of all, I can’t stress strongly enough, safeguarding is paramount. Every decision you make has to be made with the intention of keeping children safe and well and supporting their wellbeing. This is a difficult balancing act.
You must undertake a full risk assessment and ensure that everyone involved in working with the children has had sight of it. Health and safety is everyone’s responsibility. If you are worried about safety, it is always better to err on the side of caution.
I must stress that I am neither an expert in virology nor in health and safety legislation. This blog is based on the advice I have been given by experts in these fields, but we are still learning about this virus. The onus is on Nursery owners and school leaders to ensure that they are fully compliant with the law and that staff and children are kept safe.
Remember what you put in place for the children when they return, whenever that may be, does not necessarily have to stay like that forever. We hope that things will change and improve as we come to understand more about the virus and the way it spreads, and as we get better at tracking and tracing. So, what you put in place now will change over the course of the next few months in gradual, incremental shifts. Just because you may have to remove something from your provision now, it doesn’t mean it’s gone forever.
Every school and setting is unique, any guidance in any of these blogs will need to be looked at through the lens of your own unique circumstances. I do not have all the answers, even though I would love to say I do. Whatever decisions you make, make sure they are compliant with the relevant health and safety legislation outlined in the documents on the Covid19 tab.
Over the next few blogs I will try address some of the frequently asked questions which have arisen during the last few weeks.
Bubbles and social distancing
There seems to have been a lot of confusion caused by various politicians and health advisors who have referred to social distancing in briefings and in interviews. Last weekend Jenny Harries spoke about children sitting at “work desks” and Michael Gove seemed to indicate that he expected young children to be sitting at tables and staying away from each other. However, the guidance from the DFE states
“We know that, unlike older children and adults, early years and primary age children cannot be expected to remain 2 metres apart from each other and staff. In deciding to bring more children back to early years and schools, we are taking this into account. Schools should, therefore, work through the hierarchy of measures set out above:
- avoiding contact with anyone with symptoms
- frequent hand cleaning and good respiratory hygiene practices
- regular cleaning of settings
- minimising contact and mixing
It is still important to reduce contact between people as much as possible, and we can achieve that and reduce transmission risk by ensuring children, young people and staff where possible, only mix in a small, consistent group and that small group stays away from other people and groups.”
This is where the “bubble” concept comes into play.
The idea is that if children stay within a small bubble of children with an adult, by minimising the number of people in contact with each other, the risk of cross infection is minimised. So social distancing is not as necessary as it would be if children were mixing with a larger group of children.
It is worth looking at how this concept has been applied in Danish Kindergartens, which take children up to the age of six years old. See this article https://famly.co/blog/covid-19/denmark-reopening-child-care-corona/
In Denmark children have been grouped with friends in small groups of five or six with a key worker. In the UK we are being asked to keep children in bubbles of 15 * just as I published this blog the government issued some EYFS guidance (at 12pm on a Sunday during a bank holiday - thanks for that) which states;
"Keeping group sizes to a maximum of 8 children is preferable so groups are as small as possible, and providers are expected to ensure that there are no more than 16 children in a group in early years settings."
When I read this statement to my husband his response was, "That's numberwang!" .So, should a bubble be 8, 15 or 16?
I can't speak for the DFE but, my advice would be wherever possible, the younger the children, the smaller the bubble should be. Very young children will need help and support to remain in their bubble and to maintain the necessary levels of hygiene to keep them as safe as possible. Fewer children in the bubble or a higher adult to child ratio will help with this.
Some things to consider when setting up the bubbles:
Friendship groups – you need to be very clear to parents that once a bubble has been set up it can not change, otherwise the risk of infection increases. Therefore, it’s important that the combination of children in the bubble provides suitable wellbeing support for all involved. Where a child has a special friend who you think they will gravitate towards, it is better to put them in a bubble together than to risk potential cross-contamination.
Staffing – if a member of staff needs to go to the toilet, or to support a child in the bubble with toileting, or who is hurt, how will you ensure that the bubble is sufficiently supervised to maintain hygiene and maintain the bubble? What about if a member of staff is absent? Introducing another member of staff at a later date compromises the integrity of the bubble. What many schools and settings are doing is putting 2 staff in a bubble to cover for eventualities such as accidents, toilet breaks, illness, managing pick up and drop off etc. If this is an approach you intend to use you MUST remember that, regardless of the number of staff supporting the MAXIMUM NUMBER OF CHILDREN IN A BUBBLE IS 15 and in EYFS the recommendation seems to be 8. If you are working in a pre school setting then the ratios set out in the EYFS still apply
“For pre-school children in early years settings, the staff to child ratios within Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) continue to apply as set out here, and we recommend using these to group children.”
It’s worth considering that not everyone will return to your school or setting immediately. Some parents may decide to keep children at home, only to change their mind in a few weeks. If there are 8 children in each bubble and one child returns, it would be necessary to set up a bubble for that child. This wouldn’t be desirable. Where possible it would be wise to keep bubbles to 6 or 7, to allow for new arrivals to be absorbed into the bubbles.
If it is not possible to achieve these small groups at any point the DFE recommends that providers
“should discuss options with their local authority or trust. This might be because there are not enough classrooms or spaces available in the setting or because they do not have enough available teachers or staff to supervise the groups. Solutions might involve children attending a nearby school. If necessary, settings have the flexibility to focus first on continuing to provide places for priority groups and then, to support children’s early learning, settings should prioritise groups of children as follows:
- early years settings - 3 and 4 year olds followed by younger age groups
- infant schools - nursery (where applicable) and reception
- primary schools - nursery (where applicable), reception and year 1”
So if by maintaining the integrity of the bubble, you require more staff and that means you can’t accept all N, YR, R1 and Y6, you can limit the number of children coming into school and prioritise the younger and vulnerable children. Remember safety and safeguarding are paramount.
A frequently asked question is can children go from one bubble to another bubble? The whole concept of the bubble is to maintain children’s safety by minimising the risk of cross-contamination. So, the child should remain in one bubble. This has major implications for settings where children attend on different days of the week or at different times.
The early years guidance issued on the 15th May states:
“In some cases it may be necessary for settings to introduce a temporary cap on numbers, to ensure that children are kept in small groups, and to avoid mixing of children between groups.”
This may mean that settings have to work with parents and families and agree a more rigid approach to attendance to maintain the bubbles. In the early stages of returning to school the integrity of the bubble is paramount. This might be something which will change in the coming weeks or months but at the moment children should remain in their bubbles whilst in schools or settings and not mix in their bubbles.
What about the children of key workers who have been attending all along? Do they stay in their key worker bubble or join the year group bubble?
This is a difficult decision. Ideally, the children should stay in the bubble they are in for safety reasons, but this means they won’t be able to access the curriculum alongside their year group. If you make the decision to move them into the year group bubble, they MUST stay in the year group bubble. If this is something you intend to do, it would be wise to tell all parents of children in the same bubble, that a child will be in the bubble who has been in contact with another bubble. Confidentiality needs to be respected, but the parents of the other children also need to be aware that there is a risk posed by a child joining from another bubble. Once the child has joined a bubble, they MUST remain in the bubble.
The same advice applies to staff. Staff should not move between bubbles, to do so damages the integrity of the bubble and the protection it offers.
What about late arrivals?
Wherever possible leave some spaces in each bubble to accommodate children who may join the group later on.
What about PPA?
Many schools are closing their doors for one afternoon a week to provide teachers with the necessary PPA and to allow for a deep clean. If this is not possible schools are providing PPA by having 2 members of staff in the bubble so that one member can cover for the other.
What about lunchtime supervision?
Many settings and schools are overcoming the issue of bursting the bubble with lunchtime supervisors by covering with 2 staff in the bubble and not bringing in the mid day supervisors. Others are bringing lunches to the classroom and insisting that children remain in their seats to eat lunch while the supervisor stays at the do
Some are assigning one mid day supervisor to each bubble and they become part of the bubble at lunchtime but do not work with other bubbles.
None of these solutions is ideal, but where children are unable to distance, the bubble is the best protection we have against the spread of the virus.
What about staff absence- this is where having more than one member of staff in the bubble can really come into its own. If a member of staff is ill and they are the sole adult in the bubble, in order to maintain the integrity of the bubble the children may have to stay at home with work provided by an adult. The only other alternative is to provide cover but with strict social distancing. This is something which the government recognises young children find very difficult and will require some very large spaces or for young children to be still for long periods of the day, which is neither desirable not practicable.
The government guidance is quite clear that being in the bubble does not protect anyone from catching the virus. Other measures such as strict hygiene control, removing resources which can harbour the virus and maintaining as much social distancing as possible are all measures which can reduce, but not completely remove the risk of catching the virus.
Although the government recognise that young children can not socially distance, they still state that:
“Where settings can keep children and young people in those small groups 2 metres away from each other, they should do so.”
Furher advice issued today states:
While it is not expected that children and staff within a group will keep 2 metres apart, it is important for settings to consider how they can reduce contact between groups of children and staff as far as possible, for example by ensuring children and staff mix in a small consistent group and that small group stays away from other groups.
Settings should ensure:
- physical distancing between groups of children and staff as far as possible
- that individual groups use the same area of a setting throughout the day as much as possible
- that the sharing of toys and resources is reduced
- that any toys or resources that are shared can be easily cleaned between different groups’ use
Consider how snacks and meal times can be planned to ensure groups of children are kept together. Where possible, staff meetings and training sessions should be conducted virtually and staff should remain at a safe distance from each other during breaks, including in staff rooms or other staff areas in the setting.
Leaders will need to weigh up the risks and benefits of allowing children to socialise at a distance less than 2 metres apart and the risks to children’s mental health and well being of not allowing any contact under 2 metres. This is an extremely difficult judgement call. I must stress that the government guidance is only guidance, and does not override the health and safety legislation which requires managers to ensure that staff and children are kept safe. See legal guidance here from cloisters under the COVID19 tab on my website.
I would urge all leaders to communicate their thinking and their actions very clearly with parents and carers. They will need to understand the reasons for the changes which have been put in place, and they will need to understand the part which they must play in helping minimise the risk to children and adults. Leaders also need to be absolutely clear that they can not guarantee that children will not come into contact with the virus.
I would urge all leaders and managers to check their risk assessments and any arrangements they are making with their Local Authority or Trust and to check with their insurance provider to ensure that they are compliant with the conditions of their insurance policy and finally to check the relevant health and safety legislation.
In the next blog I will address areas of provision and what they EYFS classroom might look like in a post lockdown world.