Foodservice operators in the education sector are "thrilled" to be some of the first in hospitality to reopen, with all schools and colleges in England set to return on 8 March.
"We're thrilled that we have a date for when all schools can reopen and our teams are eager to get back to it," said Deborah Homshaw, managing director of education and healthcare at CH&Co. Her positivity was echoed by CH&Co chief executive Bill Toner, who said the dates, both provisional and confirmed, mean that teams can work towards a timeframe, "which is great for morale".
Stephen Forster, chair of LACA, said the announcement "offers hope to the school meals industry, who have suffered during the prolonged closure of schools"; while Andrew Wilkinson, chief executive of schools and universities at Sodexo UK & Ireland, also expressed confidence in both the company's systems and processes and its teams.
He said Sodexo would "build on the lessons learned" from reopening schools in September last year. Many operators have the confidence from remaining operational during lockdown to support the children of key workers and those considered vulnerable.
"Having said that, it's certainly not as simple as everything goes back to normal," continued Homshaw. Primary school staff, secondary school and college students and staff will have to be regularly tested, for instance, and this is one of the challenges she expects to have to navigate in the coming weeks.
"Secondary schools have a huge logistical feat ahead regarding the testing of pupils, which could have a knock-on effect on our service times and approach. Each school will be different, so we'll need to remain agile to support this," she said.
She added: "We also don't know what meal numbers will look like, which will naturally create uncertainty around ordering and staffing levels. The ‘everyone to returns to school at once' approach in England is going to create pressure points for all. So, working closely and collaboratively with our school partners and supplier partners is going to be key."
University students on practical courses in England will also return at the beginning of March, but it is still unclear when remaining university students will return to face-to-face teaching, and institutions will only be given a week's notice ahead of any return.
Phil Rees Jones, TUCO chair and deputy director of estates and campus facilities at Cardiff University, pointed out that higher education facilities were unlikely to open until May/June, the end of the academic year, and that many will also not see the benefit of international summer schools. However, he said it did raise confidence for a September 2021 re-start.
"Catering facilities in many universities have carried on. They were readied to open for September 2020 with Covid safety measures in place, and it's a case of when the time comes, fully opening up the doors," he said.
"Caterers are extremely resilient and versatile and we can work with fairly short timelines. It will be harder for those sites with hotels and conference centres as they may need more time to mobilise."
Meanwhile, operators who work across the devolved nations will also have to deal with the more staggered approach being taken across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Pupils aged three to seven returned to classroom teaching along with some vocational courses in Wales this week, and it is hoped that the remaining primary school students and those preparing for exams will return on 15 March "in a flexible way".
Scotland's youngest pupils also returned to school this week along with limited numbers of those who need to complete practical work to achieve an SQA certificate. The majority of primary and secondary school pupils will continue with remote learning until at least mid-March; while in Northern Ireland, primary schools are expected to open for years 1-3 on 8 March, along with preschools and nurseries.
"We're still left with questions," added Toner. "For example, what happens when the furlough scheme ends, which is due before the entire hospitality industry can reopen fully. We'll just have to wait for the chancellor's Budget announcement to get the bigger picture."
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