Back to school: Covid-19 style

This is a new school year like no other.

Andrew Cowley, Deputy Headteacher of a South London primary school and co-founder and blogger for Healthy Toolkit, writes about what the return to school might be like this September.

The return to school in the autumn term is always an occasion which teachers look forward to with eager anticipation. The freshness of new books, neatly sharpened pencils and new stationery, carefully mounted displays and perfectly tidy classrooms, marks the pride teachers have in being prepared.

Children in new uniforms, with shiny new shoes and smart haircuts, sporting trendy pencil cases and lunchboxes; they are eager to please or maybe to push the boundaries a little. Chattering into class on the first morning of a new year, maybe a little nervous of the new teacher, our new classes are just as excited and enthusiastic as we are.

There is something special about the start of any new school year.

Andrew Cowley is Deputy Headteacher of a South London primary school and co-founder of Healthy Toolkit.

It's going to be different

However, this is a new school year like no other. We are not welcoming our children back after six weeks, but after five often very difficult months since the school closures enforced by the pandemic. Of course schools have never really closed; we have been open for key workers’ children, taken part in online and digital teaching, and from June we took back limited numbers of children in a safe and meticulously planned manner.

Teachers have still had the summer break to relax, recharge and restore their resilience for the year ahead, but the emotions all teachers will feel have been framed by a number of challenges that nobody, however experienced, could have envisaged. Teachers want to be in the classroom, children need to be back at school and parents certainly wish to see their offspring at school desks rather than around the kitchen table. Schools, teaching and wellbeing will all however be very different in the time of Covid-19.

New challenges

Firstly, there are some very different challenges to face from September. Learning, for example, will not be a matter of simply picking up from where we left off on 20 March. From that point, teaching changed from a face-to-face experience to one where children will only have seen their teacher through a laptop or mobile device. Despite the best efforts of teachers and parents, lack of broadband capacity, the needs of parents to work from home and the needs of other children in the household, may have limited the potential for learning to happen at home. Catching those children up will present a challenge to teachers as they return; easing them into a new routine of learning will be another test altogether.

There will be other requirements, presenting stresses far different from dealing with teaching and learning matters. Risk assessments will mean dealing with staggered entry and exit times, maybe with children arriving earlier and leaving later than beforehand. Entry into school, managing toilet breaks and handwashing routines, ensuring one-way systems are followed along corridors and through the playground, all offer situations we have never had to consider previously. Routines are vital in school, but these new routines are going to be strict and are going to cause some anxieties.

Days will look very different: even assemblies, a chance to grab an additional 15 minutes to catch up with marking or photocopying or at least a chance to switch off a little while the deputy head waxes lyrical with the children, will be unlike any experience before. Assemblies are a key point in the school day, with their sense of community and togetherness, but they cannot happen as before. There is every chance assemblies will be pre-recorded and broadcast to children at the allocated time in class, the assembly hall being out of bounds for reasons of social distancing.

Social distancing and school relationships

Who had heard the expression 'social distancing' before February of this year? Yet, we had all become very used to estimating a two metre gap before the regulations shifted. But now we are told that children don’t need to socially distance from each other, but they do from us, as we will have to from our colleagues. Children are naturally sociable and inquisitive. They will get out of their seats, show off their work to friends and teachers, ask for help or have a gossip. They can't do these things now though: and this offers another challenge to teachers in how we ensure the new expectations are followed, without appearing draconian. Maintaining the integrity of the ‘bubble’, be it a class or year group, is going to take no small measure of vigilance.

Schools thrive on relationships but these will be different too. Parents can only be spoken to at a distance, by phone or by a digital platform. For primary schools in particular, parental involvement is a vital cog in building the supportive community that will be missing, for health reasons. Diaries will look very empty as occasions such as Harvest Festival, parents' evenings and Nativity plays, which are part of routine for children, parents and teachers, are likely missing from the schedule for the coming term.

The impact of Covid-19

In addition to dealing with changes in school routines, schools will need to consider the impact Covid-19 has had on their teachers. Though many teachers have been in school supporting children through the phased return and in key worker groups, as well as their digital interaction with children, they have done so without protective equipment. Many will fear, despite what we've have been told about children being low-risk spreaders, catching the virus themselves and passing it to colleagues and families. Some will have had Covid-19 and know its medical impact. A number of our colleagues will have lost family members. Others will have avoided family visits, even over the summer, to ensure the safety of their loved ones.

When schools return in September, not forgetting our friends in Scotland and in Leicestershire who are back at school already, mental health and wellbeing needs to be a priority for pupils and staff. For children and teachers alike, fears may be allayed by the simple fact of being back in a routine, but at the back of our minds will be anxiety of the unknown and the unproven. We already know that we have to have resources and strategies in place for online learning in the case of local lockdowns, and measures for any sign of possible infections among our school community.

It is a new academic year, with new and different expectations for teachers and families, and naturally a few fears too. Schools are prepared to open, and will have prepared carefully for this. We want to give the children the chance to be back with their friends, teachers and teaching assistants. We simply need to ensure that we look after each other.

Andrew Cowley is Deputy Headteacher at a South London primary school, co-founder and blogger for Healthy Toolkit and the author of “The Wellbeing Toolkit: Sustaining, supporting and enabling school staff” published by Bloomsbury Education. Andrew tweets as @andrew_cowley23 and as @HealthyToolkit

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