‘We want the best for them’: English schools prepare for pupils’ return

Mar 5, 2021 by

Staff at a primary in the Cotswolds and a secondary in Manchester describe their feelings about Monday’s resumption

Steven Morris and Maya Wolfe-Robinson

Glyn Jones, the headteacher of Blue Coat primary school in the Cotswolds market town of Wotton-under-Edge, sums up his mood as “apprehensive excitement” as he and his staff prepare for the “big bang” return. On Monday, 300 children aged four to 11 will climb up the sloping drive and face-to-face learning will resume for the whole school.

“We’re really looking forward to seeing the children,” says Jones. “The staff will be there to welcome them back as they come up the drive. We care about them deeply. We want the best for them and know that education makes a difference to their present and future.

“But I’m apprehensive about how well the children will settle, mindful of how we can support their emotional wellbeing. We also have to think carefully about the wellbeing of our staff. Many of them have conflicting thoughts about the children returning. Teachers are under huge pressure.”

Asked if the government’s decision to go for a “big bang” return was the right one, Jones pauses. “There are logistical challenges, for example cleaning the classrooms. “We will have 300 children and close to 300 parents coming up our drive, following a one-way system around a school not particularly designed for social distancing. There will be a lot of people gathered together no matter what measures we have in place.

“And we have the challenge of trying to socially distance four-year-olds. Anybody who has come in contact with a four-year-old will appreciate the challenge that poses.”

Primary school pupils will not be tested for coronavirus. Staff take two lateral flow tests a week. “They are all happy to do that,” says Jones. Teachers and helpers are wearing face masks in communal areas. That teachers are not entitled to earlier vaccinations is a sore point.

“I strongly believe staff should be vaccinated,” Jones says. “Every member of staff has expressed surprise we were not offered one. It would have alleviated anxiety and shown that school staff are valued for the necessary role we play in the roadmap out of lockdown.”

Headteacher Glyn Jones

Headteacher Glyn Jones: ‘We’re really looking forward to seeing the children.’ Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

Jones says staff will be working much harder, from forgoing breaks in the staffroom to remain in their bubbles, to staying in after school to keep parents informed. “Teachers are working a full capacity.”

The timetable for the return has been planned with military precision to make sure the 10 bubbles into which the school has been divided do not come into contact with each other as they move around the building.

The school has tweaked its curriculum, including increasing the amount of PE that children do because of the correlation between physical exercise and mental health. Jones points out that for the four-year-olds, a quarter of their lives has taken place while the world has been gripped by the pandemic. “That has to have an impact.”

Out in the playground, Jane Goodship, a reception teacher, is supervising a group of four- and five-year-olds. About a third of pupils – children of key workers and those deemed vulnerable – have been in school so far this term.

She describes her thoughts about Monday as a “mixed bag”. “I’ll be really pleased to see the four-year-olds to see how they have progressed and what I need to teach next. But you can’t social distance in reception – we wear masks a lot in the classroom. You can’t social distance, I have to wipe bottoms and you have to cuddle them when they cry.”

Natasha Underwood, a member of the play team, says the children who have been in school have adapted well. The extraordinary has become routine. “The bubbles all have designated buckets and trugs of toys they are allowed to play with. The children know to wash their hands before they come out and when they go back in, they know if a toy comes from a different group and rolls down the playground they are not to touch it.”

Underwood says she feels a little anxious about Monday. “But it will be great to have the children back.”

Gorton education village in east Manchester, which houses Cedar Mount academy.
Gorton education village in east Manchester, which houses Cedar Mount academy. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Like most teachers since the start of the pandemic, staff at Cedar Mount academy in Gorton, Manchester, 150 miles north of Wotton, have seen their job descriptions steadily expand. Their latest challenge is the logistical feat of administering three coronavirus tests to each of the school’s 824 pupils over seven days.

The guidance for secondary schools and colleges laid out in the government’s roadmap last month says all students will take three tests at “existing school testing facilities” and then move on to twice-weekly home testing kits.

The principal, Kal Hodgson, quickly decided to delay bringing all students back into school until the mass testing was out of the way. His reasoning was twofold: his staff couldn’t be expected to run a testing centre while simultaneously teaching in classrooms, and he didn’t want any positive tests to trigger yet more weeks of self-isolation for entire year-group bubbles.

Hodgson and the vice-principal, Simon Platt, are keen that when students finally return, school is as normal as possible, with some familiarity to get them back on track after nearly three months of remote learning.

Platt has painstakingly drawn up an intricate rota dividing each year group into three, each with their own time slot for testing on three dates with a gap of three to five days in between.

Before that, though, the school has to gain consent for all the under-16s to be tested in school. Platt says that was the biggest hurdle – the staff have sent out literature explaining how the testing will work, as well as recording a live session and an instructional video.

They have set up an app to make it easier, before resorting to self-addressed stamped envelopes for the less-tech savvy parents. Teachers have also been talking to families about the testing process on welfare calls and home visits, already “a huge operation” to support families all the way through the crisis.

Hodgson recruited 20 volunteers from his staff for the testing team, mainly led by the science department who have lent their test tube holders to hold the swab-filled vials. The sports hall has been commandeered for use as a testing centre.

Once face-to-face teaching returns in mid-March, the guidelines now recommend that students wear masks at all times, and some heads have said pupils could face exclusion for non-compliance. Platt doesn’t want to go down that route, preferring to prioritise “educating and communicating the benefits of wearing a mask”. The school will provide masks to those who forget them, but Hodgson concedes that staff “might give them a detention if it happen a number of times, to remind them that it’s important – but we’ve tried to be flexible.”

The pandemic has thrown a number of challenges at the staff: they were “inundated” after offering to provide food packages during the first lockdown, and during welfare visits teachers have often spent time helping with applications for free school meals or referring the family to a food bank.

Hodgson hopes the testing regime will mean students become comfortable enough with the process to handle the home testing kits. Then the school can get on with delivering “the best education” he believes his students deserve. “Would I rather not have to do all this?” he says. “Yes. However, this is the solution that we’ve got”.

Source: ‘We want the best for them’: English schools prepare for pupils’ return | Schools | The Guardian

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