As many children in England go back to school for the first time in months, we talked to parents around the country about their expectations, anxieties, and how they hope to navigate their way through the new normal in the age of the pandemic.
There were a few tears, one or two lips being bitten nervously and some of the younger children clutched firmly on to their parents’ hands as they were marched up to the school gates. But most of the 840 pupils returning to Bishop Road primary school after their very extended break had a spring in their step.
In their bright purple jumpers and cardigans, they greeted friends they had not seen for months joyfully; they excitedly began to tell teachers about their adventures in lockdown; some demanded parents take a picture to record the occasion.
Then they started to get used to the differences – the one-way routes, the hand-washing regimes, the subtle changes to playtime.
“It’s great to see them back,” said Jon Martin, who was dropping off Bowen, six, and Nia, nine. “My daughter barely slept last night, she couldn’t wait to get back in. My son didn’t grumble as we got out of the door so that’s a win too.
“Trying to do home learning has been really hard and they’ve missed out on the social side. We’re all desperate to get back to some sort of normal.”
Sara Kelly-Smith, a single parent, was escorting Mia, seven, back to school. “It’s been a bit of a nightmare,” said Kelly-Smith, who has been trying to juggle her beauty business with childcare. “There’s only so many bike rides you can do.”
Most were happy with the safety regime the school had put in place, with only a handful turning up in masks. “I’m sure they’ll do it well,” said Kate Macleod, who was dropping off her seven-year-old daughter, Jessie. “More than anything, I don’t want their lives, their education, their futures to be affected any more than they have to be. They’ve missed learning, friends, socialisation.”
It felt familiar – but there were differences.
Pupils and parents faced a web of lines and arrows painted on to playgrounds to follow to make sure they got to the right place at the right time.
Day one involved a staggered drop-off. Years one, three and five were asked to arrive from 8.30 – 8.45am, years two, four and six from 9.15-9.30am. If sibling drop-off times differed adults needed to go through the process twice. To help, the school had posted a series of videos online explaining the procedures.
The school made it clear all children were expected to attend unless they were self-isolating because of coronavirus symptoms or a positive test result, or if they had been advised not to attend by a health professional because of an underlying condition.
Pupils were remaining with their class throughout the day and were not mixing with other classes for break or lunch. Events such as assemblies will happen remotely.
The school followed government guidance in not requiring staff or children to wear face coverings. But it says any person choosing to wear a mask at school will not be prevented from doing so.
There were new desk layouts, “enhanced” cleaning and, where it was safe, windows and doors were kept open to increase ventilation. It helped that day one turned out to be bright and warm.
In corridors, a “keep to the left” rule has been introduced, with clear markings on the floor.
Pupils were asked to bring in packed lunches and snacks. Children who are eligible for free school meals and were previously receiving vouchers are being provided with a packed lunch.
There will be up to three classes on a playground at any one time but each class will be allocated their own playground space.
Children will be encouraged to avoid games that involve substantial physical contact and are not allowed to bring in equipment such as footballs and table tennis bats.
Nor were they allowed to bring pencil cases, toys, balls or games. They were also not to bring in sweets, cakes or other items on their birthdays.
Joe Emissah, the deputy head, said the school was delighted to be welcoming pupils back. “We are fantastically pleased that we are all going to be back in school doing the things that we love – sharing stories, reading books, hearing about all the things everybody’s been getting up to and getting started with our learning.”
Most pupils and their adults seemed to be coping with the rule changes admirably.
Robert Jones, who walked Arthur, five, up to the school gates, said his son was excited to meet up with his classmates. “We’re glad everyone is getting on with it,” he said.
Mohammed Ibrahim, who dropped off Mayadea, six, said: “It’s been almost five months – we really need to go back. Of course, we’re still concerned about coronavirus but we’ve got to do our best to stay safe and get on with it.” SM
Though many schools in the North of England had taken an inset day on Tuesday, all pupils were welcomed back at staggered times by Chesham primary school in Bury, Greater Manchester.
Despite initial concerns over safety, most parents at the school’s gates were keen to see their children off into their new social bubbles.
“I think we were getting to the stage of them needing something else – they’re excited to get back,” said Kristie Harkness, who was waiting with her daughters Kenzie, eight, and Harper, four.
Throughout the lockdown, Harkness and her husband, Brett, had been trying to teach the girls at home – although Brett clarified that he “wouldn’t call it homeschooling” and that much of it had involved creating things like Egyptian tombs out of cardboard.
The family were ready to get back to normal – with Kenzie aching to see her best friend, Emma, and Harper wanting to get stuck in with painting.
For Kelly Ralph, a retail worker, and Rebecca Dewhurst, a social worker, school offered some much-needed routine for their children following the summer holidays.
“They’re not apprehensive about going into school,” said Ralph, who has two children: Noah, four, and Gracie, 10. “I think we’ve managed to keep some of that normality in our house because I’ve been at work the whole time – so it doesn’t feel that different.”
Dewhurst added that she felt the government’s changing policies on schools reopening had been confusing. “No one knows what the impact of it will be until after it’s happened so how can they really know it’s safe.”
Still, she had instructed her sons, Bartle, four, and Starson, six, on how to keep as safe as possible at school. “I’ve been very vocal about Covid and its implications for people and society with them. They know how to socially distance, they know all about hand washing.”
But for parents in the high-risk category for developing severe Covid symptoms, the decision to send their children back was something of a catch-22.
“I’ve put [my son’s] mental health first and decided to send him back to school because he needs some normality. But I’m extremely apprehensive,” said Zoe Bailey.
Bailey, who has Crohn’s disease, arthritis and asthma, has been shielding since March. The thought of Alfi, six, passing Covid on to her is something that frightens them both.
“He’s become so anxious that he shouts at people in the street for not wearing masks and tells them to get away from me,” said Bailey, adding that there was little advice from the government over high-risk parents sending children to school.
“To go from telling [shielders] not to go outside, it’s a scary place, to on 31 July saying we could just go about life as usual – you feel very unsupported,” she said.
But the school had instilled some confidence where the government had not, Bailey felt. In the event of a child or staff member having suspected Covid symptoms, Alfi will be allowed to learn at home again. “There’s a digital learning plan set up for him already,” she added. AW
At the entrance of Charles Dickens primary school in Southwark, Angel McCall was the only parent who wore a face mask. As she cradled her nine-year-old son’s head in her latex-gloved hands, she admitted that she found sending him back “very, very nerve-racking”.
“I see there are not many people wearing masks, either,” she said. “So I’m thinking: am I the only one? Are we not worrying any more?” Her son was not wearing a mask but he admitted he was nervous too.
“All I can tell him is be sensible and wash his hands and don’t touch anything,” McCall said, but she added that she did not think it would be easy for children to observe physical distancing rules.
“He hasn’t seen any of his friends since March,” McCall said, explaining that she had kept him at home and not mixed with other families since the government-mandated lockdown began.
Close by stood Ifeanyi Kamalu, waiting with his seven-year-old daughter for her turn to enter school – his four-year-old had already gone in. He had mixed feelings about returning his children to school.
“As much as I know that the coronavirus is still out there, they have been out of school for about six months so I kind of feel that they should be back at school to continue learning – as much as all of us are scared of the virus,” he said.
Kamalu was sceptical about the ability of the school to contain any outbreak. “I know that parents are bringing children from various homes … what if those kids have it? You have a huge window for passing the virus around. Here they are not necessarily observing the 2-metre rules or the face coverings.
“I wish I could homeschool them, but I haven’t got the resources.”
Not all parents were anxious. “It’s good to be back, let’s just say,” Tatjana Pisarski said. She was reassured by the school’s efforts to institute a regime of hygiene and precautions to keep pupils safe.
“The school sent a little video to show what to expect inside, what we can’t see from the outside, all the washing basins and routines … it sounds really good.”
High on the fence, a sign informed parents of the staggered times in which their children would be allowed inside: reception and year six first, at 8.15am, followed at 15 minute intervals by pupils from years four and five. “Follow the lines; join the queue; please keep your distance,” a sign instructed.
As Marina Harrington queued to hand her son over to staff she said: “I can’t wait … Freedom; work; life.” Then, peering at her son, who had screwed up his face and stepped away, she added: “I love him dearly …” Harrington’s husband, Mark, cut in: “I love him enough to let him go, I think that’s the thing.”
Marina Harrington said life with three children at home had been stressful. She explained she and her husband had been waking at 5am each day – before their children – to get in a couple of hours of work, then taking on homeschooling responsibilities when their children got up.
Asked if they were concerned that their son had fallen behind in his studies during lockdown, Mark Harrington laughed: “He’s nine … that’s people who worry too much.” DG
Source: The Guardian