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  • Writer's pictureDavid OMalley

Discerning when to return to school

Updated: May 20, 2020

Re-opening Schools- A process of discernment

It has become clear over recent days that governing bodies and academy trusts will have a significant role in deciding whether a school reopens and on the details of how that happens. It will be a complex decision and one that will need consideration and a reasonable consensus.

Making these judgements is part of the leadership role, it can be a lonely place. In Catholic life these judgements must include discernment. The word discern comes from the Latin dis (“off, or away”) and cernere (“to distinguish, separate, sift, set apart, or divide.) Below is a grid with just some of the issues that might need to be sifted and separated to come to a wise decision.

Some issues around re-opening schools:

Vulnerable adults

How many pupils live with elderly relatives who may be at additional risk?

Bus situation

How many pupils travel by bus and may compromise social distancing?


What is the relationship with the unions like and what is their view?

Cleanliness of school

Can the necessary enhanced cleaning be achieved with present cleaning contracts?

Need to re-start the economy

How much value do you place on re-starting the economy and ensuring future family income?

Staff attitudes

How do staff view a return to school and the increased risk to them and their families?

Fears of parents

How many parents are expressing fear that a return to school is premature? How many parents will refuse to send them?

Frustrations of parents

How frustrated are parents and how desperate are they to escape lock down?

Physical space in school

How much physical space is there in school? How many pupils could safely return at any one time?

Fear of a second peak

How concerned are you that the return to school might trigger a second peak and many more deaths?

Local compliance with lock down

How is your locality managing lockdown? Is it compliant or regularly breaking social distancing rules?

Success of online teaching

How good has the experience of online learning been with your pupils? What percentage have engaged successfully?

Availability of track and trace technology

Schools might well be making their risk assesments 'blind' if they do not have accurate information on the way that the virus is moving, increasing or declining in their locality. The morality of a blind judgement in returning to school is a significant issue.

Needs of disengaged pupils

How many pupils have failed to engage with online learning and need to come back for remedial tuition?

Mental health of parents/ pupils

What assessment would you make of the situation of parents and their need for normal patterns for the sake of the family and its mental health?

Local authority policies

What is the local authority proposing for the area and what would be the consequences of a fragmentary response across the area?

DfE guidelines

What guidance if the DfE offering and how well does that fit your local situation?

Don Bosco

Don Bosco was clear that any pupil who entered his school would not get any worse. This minimal statement referred to their moral character and their physical safety. That is always why he insisted on the presence of kind adults among young people. But he also sent his older pupils out to help with Cholera epidemic after ensuring they had adequate protection and sanitising equipment. Don Bosco was not afraid to take risks, but they were based on balanced precautions arising from risk assessments. He also described the doorkeeper of the school as the most vital person for its safety since they controlled what came into the environment and made it a safe place. We are those doorkeepers now facing a complex and unique choice.

The process of discernment

Any organisation will try to address the issues in the grid and others besides. In the catholic tradition something else happens to change the process from a pragmatic into a spiritual process. It is a personal reflection on what I, as an individual bring to the decision. That will include my prejudices, my deepest desires, my fears, and the opinions of others. It will also include my own blind spots and that is why discernment, whilst it has a personal dimension, also needs to be sounded out by others. Without that check I may find that my views are unbalanced and harmful.

So, five attitudes need to be brought to the decision-making table by each of those involved in making the choice:

· Openness to the outcome. Not prejudging the issues and coming with defensive arguments that turn a discussion into a battle. Instead, put aside your own arguments and really listen to the concerns and the logic of others.

· Generosity in receiving the thoughts of others, allowing their ideas space in your mind and heart and letting a spiritual wisdom begin to work among the group. The group needs to emerge with a decision that is based on generous listening and a basic trust in the good intentions of others.

· Courage is vital. It is important to say what I think and also to take balanced risks and not to shy away from controversy. This does not mean aggressive debate but a gentle and persistent arguing of a case as well as the courage to admit that your views have been changed by discussion.

· Prayerful reflection is important before arriving at a decision point. A person needs to bring the choices they have to make into the spiritual dimension of their lives. They need to be still and allow their own fears and hopes to emerge, allow the various outcomes to play out before their minds and look for a sense of peace within. It is that sense of peace that should be brought into the conversations with colleagues and into the final decision.

· A deadline is vital to discernment. It is easy to go on looking at choices and reaching paralysis by analysis. A deadline focuses the mind and brings the group together. The decision should be made in a prayerful atmosphere. There should be reassurance and appreciation for those individuals who did not get the decision that they needed.

A discernment Prayer

Lord, open our hearts and our minds to our colleagues at this table.

Help us to hear the care, the logic and the concerns they bring to this decision.

Help us to choose a pathway that brings our pupils to fullness of life

And keeps them all safe in your world and in your presence.

We ask this through Christ Our Lord AMEN

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