Top tips for creating a socially distanced school timetable

Maddie Kilminster - 20 May, 2020

Category : Blog

Top tips for creating a socially distanced school timetable

Over the last few months, schools have had to adapt to constant change, and keep their schools running without really knowing what the weeks ahead would hold. Although we still don’t have all the details, the latest Government plans suggest schools should prepare to partially reopen from 1st June, starting with Reception, Year 1, Year

Over the last few months, schools have had to adapt to constant change, and keep their schools running without really knowing what the weeks ahead would hold. Although we still don’t have all the details, the latest Government plans suggest schools should prepare to partially reopen from 1st June, starting with Reception, Year 1, Year 6, Year 10 and Year 12. A key question on everyone’s minds right now is how to design a school timetable that will adhere to social distancing and keep students and staff safe. 

To help, our partners at TimeTabler have put together some practical advice on adapting your timetable for social distancing. Maggie, our Key Account Manager and former Timetable Manager at a secondary school, has summarised their advice below:

  • Top 3 tips for a socially distanced timetable
  • Managing two school populations 
  • Questions you should ask

You’re also invited to join us in a webinar on Thursday at 3pm where we’ll be discussing timetabling in detail with our partners TimeTabler and The Onto Group. Click here to register! 

If you just can’t get enough timetabling tips, you can read the full article on TimeTabler’s website. Otherwise, this blog should give you some food for thought.


Top 3 tips for a socially distanced timetable:

1. Set different start and end times

Think about staggering your school start and end times to reduce contact in the school playground before and after school. This may seem straightforward, but bear in mind any implications for the local bus services, who may not be able to change their timetable. Instead of staggering by year group, you could even stagger by transport method, so that pupils who travel by bus arrive a little earlier or later than those whose parents drop them off in the car. 

2. Set different break and lunch times

Spacing kids out at lunch might sound like a simple solution, but without careful planning it could mean that some staff end up going without a break. For example, if Mrs Jones teaches a Year 7 class before break and Year 10 class after break, but Year 7 now has a later break time than Year 10, Mrs Jones may have to go straight from one class to the next. (Note, if you’re using TimeTabler, you can use the ‘split-site’ feature to avoid this).

3. Limit group sizes by creating two school populations

As and when all year groups return to school, if social distancing is still a requirement, one option is to set a maximum group size (e.g. 15) so students can be spaced out in the classroom. However, in most schools, this would mean only 50% or less of the school population could be in school at a time, and therefore students would only receive 50% of their ‘normal’ teaching. In this case, schools could try splitting into two student populations and manage teacher coverage using a rota system. 

Currently, the DfE is not expecting schools to introduce staggered returns or a rota systems, but without the ability to be flexible, many schools are concerned it will be impossible for them to follow social distancing guidelines.

If splitting your school into two populations is something you want to consider, we’ve put together some more detailed advice on this below. 


Managing two school populations 

There are two routes you might consider when splitting your student body:

Route 1: Split each teaching group within each Year in two

At Key Stages 1-3, it should be fairly easy to split each class in two as students are generally all taking the same subjects. However, you might want to consider how you split the teaching groups, for example to maintain friendship groups, or to separate antisocial or disruptive pairs. Equally, you might actually decide to break up friendship groups to cut down on social interaction before and after class.

However, at Key Stages 4 and 5, it’s likely to be more difficult to create two populations of equal size by dividing teaching groups. With students attending lots of different combinations of subjects, each with different class sizes, it would be near impossible to coordinate options to have only one population at school at one time (see ‘Staggering populations’ section below). 

Route 2: Group Years to make populations

There are a number of different ways to do this, for example you might group Years 7, 9 and 11 into Population X and Years 8, 10, and 12/13 into Population Y. Alternatively, you might split by Key Stage – whatever makes the most sense for a balanced demand on specialist rooms, labs, equipment and so on. Note, with this option, individual teaching groups may still need to be split to stay within the size limit.

Staggering populations

Once you’ve split your population in two, you then need to consider how to manage how to timetable them. For schools considering reopening on a rota basis, there are a few different ways you could approach this:

  • Populations come in on alternate weeks 
  • Population X in morning, Population Y in afternoon
  • Population X in morning Mon-Weds AM, Population Y in afternoon Weds PM-Fri

If you go for B or C, you should bear a few things in mind: 

  • Make sure social contact is limited at crossover time
  • Mornings tend to be longer on a school timetable, so make sure each population gets an equal amount of teaching time
  • Plan two lunch sittings during crossover time

Whatever your approach, it’s also important to consider whether there are sufficient transport links to get all populations to school on time, and whether parents’ work schedules are able to adapt.

Questions you should ask:

  • Could you find a way for students to stay in one place? Unless they needed a specialist room, teachers could move from room to room instead, to reduce social contact on the corridors
  • Do students have to eat lunch in the canteen? Students could eat in their classroom or on the school field, where they can spread out and where it’s more ventilated
  • Could students spend the day in their PE kit? There are different opinions on PE – some say it could make physical contact more likely, but others argue it’s vital for mental as well as physical health. If you do keep PE on your timetable, students could come to school in their PE kit to avoid the close proximity of changing rooms
  • Will you be adding hand sanitiser stations around the school? If so, you might need to make changes to the work of ancillary staff like cleaners and caretakers
  • Could you make a one-way system? You could use floor-arrows or cordons to cut down on corridor bottle-necks 
  • Is the staffroom big enough? Is there enough space to spread staff out too?
  • Can you make detentions socially distanced? Or is there an alternative way of managing behaviour?
  • Do you have students living with elderly or vulnerable parents or guardians? These students might need to arrive late or leave early
  • Do you have any elderly or vulnerable staff? For example, should vulnerable staff do online teaching only? If so, how will this affect the timetable?
  • Have you got consistent guidelines for setting and marking remote learning? Staff with lower teaching loads could be made responsible for setting online work and monitoring the students who are not currently in school
  • Do you have a plan to make up for lost time? The effects of this break in learning may well be felt for some time after schools return. Do you have a plan to tackle the loss of motivation that some students may experience?
  • Should you invest in the future? Has the technology you have been using for remote working worked well? It’s worth investing in good solutions now, because although things are starting to return to normal, restrictions may be tightened again in future

About TimeTabler

TimeTabler is a fast, friendly and reliable computer program used by schools & colleges in over 80 countries to schedule their timetables. Designed to reduce the manual work involved in timetabling, TimeTabler leaves you with more time to apply your professional skill and judgement where it’s needed, to produce a timetable of the highest quality.

TimeTabler’s founder Keith Johnson is also the author of the standard ‘bible’ on Timetabling: ‘The Timetabler’s CookBook, which has now helped thousands of beginners to learn the Art of Timetabling, and many experienced timetablers to understand it in even more depth.

The good news is that TimeTabler integrates with Arbor MIS to give you the best timetabling experience. Use TimeTabler to schedule your timetable, then simply import it into Arbor’s MIS, using our inbuilt Wizard that guides you through the steps. Once your timetable is imported, you can make any changes or tweaks you need to in Arbor, so you don’t have to keep going back and forth. What’s more, as a trusted TimeTabler partner, Arbor customers can receive a discount on their TimeTabler licence.

If you’d like to find out more on the topic of timetabling for social distancing, Arbor and TimeTabler are taking part in an online debate hosted by our partners The ONTO Group on Thursday 21st May at 3pm. Click here to register!

Because Arbor MIS is cloud-based, you and your staff can work from wherever you need to. Find out more about the ways Arbor can help you work remotely and flexibly in our free webinar series today – check out the schedule here. You can also get in touch to book a virtual demo with one of our team – simply email or call 0208 050 1028.