Barnsley Council has echoed advice from central government that schools could begin to reopen for early years, reception, year one and year six pupils from Monday.
Figures obtained by Barnsley’s National Education Union branch indicate 48 of the borough’s 77 primary schools made the decision to reopen this week, with the remainder planning a return over the next fortnight.
Many schools in Barnsley have taken a phased approach to welcoming students back, and the Chronicle understands some have taken steps to ensure social distancing - including staggered start and break times, spacing out desks in classrooms and limiting movement throughout school.
Vulnerable children and those of key workers have been eligible to stay in school throughout the lockdown period. The new measures are part of risk assessments put in place by schools - but a spokesperson for Barnsley NEU told the Chronicle many hadn’t been able to properly consult with their staff before these took place.
“A number of schools had the information to put risk assessments on paper, but on Monday we were finding they weren’t being adhered to,” they said. “They have been done very hurriedly in a lot of cases.
“We are very concerned about the way the decision to reopen schools has been reached, which doesn’t seem to have been particularly democratic.
“The evidence from our members is that the majority of workers in schools still don’t feel safe returning to work.
“We are very appreciative of schools who have listened to their staff’s concerns. A collaborative approach with schools and academy trusts is the best way forward.”
The NEU has suggested ‘drop-in’ visits by the council could support schools in making sure risk assessments were adhered to.
The spokesperson said members from various schools had reported hand sanitiser not being provided in classrooms, cleaning materials left without labels and bins without lids on them.
Astrea Academy Trust, which runs several schools in Barnsley as well as others in South Yorkshire, was forced to respond directly to criticism from the NEU after announcing it would begin reopening schools this week.
A spokesperson confirmed Astrea’s Highgate Primary Academy, in Goldthorpe, was initially set to open yesterday but will now welcome students back from Monday along with Carrfield, Gooseacre, and The Hill.
The spokesperson said: “We were disappointed to see these comments from the NEU, particularly as we have taken time to discuss our approach with them, share our risk assessments and talk through the protective measures we are taking.
“Risk assessments have been completed for all employees and only those who are happy to come into school are doing so. We are continually reviewing our plans to make sure that pupils will have an enjoyable and safe return to Highgate.
“Having considered very carefully about how to make this happen, we have decided that Highgate will welcome more children back from Monday.
“This is also the date we are currently working towards for our other Dearne primary schools.”
Barnsley’s Public Health director Julia Burrows said decisions were under ‘continuous review’.
“I have seen impressive examples of how schools are risk assessing, planning and managing the creation of a safe environment as possible for children and staff,” she added.
“We’re as confident as we can be that the decision to allow the gradual and careful further opening of schools from June 1 is the right one.”
Council leader Sir Steve Houghton said: “Based on risk assessments, we’re supporting schools and early years settings to welcome children back, should their parents or carers wish to do so.”