Special schools in England are anxiously seeking updated coronavirus advice, only days before many reopen in a sector where social distancing is often impossible.
The most recent guidance was published in July but those running special schools say they need greater clarity, particularly in relation to children with suctioning needs.
Phillip Potter, the headteacher of Oak Grove college in West Sussex, which opens to the first of its pupils on Friday, said he was working on the basis that the guidance was still in preparation. However, he needed further information in order to source and prepare for using the right personal protective equipment, for which the college was already paying “an extortionate amount”.
“There’s also the question of whether we can get enough of it in time, and the need to reassure and prepare our staff, young people and their parents. We need to know the rules we will be following,” added Potter, whose school teaches 260 students with learning difficulties, from years 7 to 14.
For suctioning procedures that may need to be carried out on children with cerebral palsy or chronic lung conditions, his school and others were considering FFp3 masks, which are typically used in the NHS for potentially infectious aerosol-generating procedures.
“I have to to get staff fitted for them, so I need to know what sort of rules we are following, as well as can we access enough of it,” Potter said. “I cannot fathom why detailed and robust guidance is so late in coming out. My fear is that there are people who are unsure on what the guidance should be.”
Jonty Clark, the chief executive of the Beckmead Trust, which specialises in support for traumatised young people with social, emotional and mental health issues as well as autism and challenging behaviour, said the sector was entering “uncharted territory”. He said “absolute terror” had been felt by many children and young people who had been deprived this year of the routine and support they relied on.
Planning at the trust, which operates at eight sites in south London, and an alternative provision school in Harlow, Essex, has included increasing cleaning, shorter lessons and more breaks. But it has also had to remove tools such as Blu Tack, which is used for sensory reasons, and to halt soft play.
Clark said: “A huge challenge for us also is that we have to hold the children when we do physical interventions, and some of the families we work with are quite anxious because those situations will inevitably arise.”
For such interventions, the school had been advised to use visors, rather than face masks, to maintain the intuitive communication of facial expressions.
“For us it’s going to be the usual cycle of anxiety for our children – just to the power of ‘N’ – because they are always anxious about coming back to school,” Clark said. “We have that ski jump every year, in terms of behavioural incidents, but we are confident we will get there.
“We have a wonderful group of staff who are committed to the kids and are desperate to see them again. There’s just the unknown: how long is this going to go on for?”
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