Outside the gates of Oldham’s biggest secondary school, life is only superficially normal. The town centre, a short walk away, is busy with lunchtime shoppers and the pubs filled with drinkers.
But the coronavirus lurks and the Greater Manchester town has had the highest infection rate in England for three weeks, according to NHS data. Although the number of cases has fallen, its 236,000 residents still face restrictions on their daily life.
It is against this uncertain backdrop that 43,000 pupils will start flooding back into Oldham’s classrooms this week. At the Blue Coat school, on the edge of the town centre, a nervous excitement fills the air. “We can’t wait to get the children back – the staff are chomping at the bit,” said the headteacher, Rob Higgins. “Some staff have been nervous and anxious, like there will be [with] some children.”
For a school that was already bursting at the seams with its 1,750 pupils and 150 staff, making Blue Coat Covid-safe was a mammoth logistical exercise costing tens of thousands of pounds – more than £10,000 on hand sanitiser alone.
Singing is banned and the trumpets and trombones of the award-winning Blue Coat brass band have fallen silent, their practice space turned into a first-aid room for suspected cases of Covid-19. The library, perhaps for the first time, will be almost completely silent, run instead as a click-and-collect service.
Higgins insists that “even the grumpiest teenager” is looking forward to being back in class. Staff have undergone “trauma-informed training” so they can identify children struggling to cope with the new regime. Although the most vulnerable pupils have been supported since March, the mental toll of the last five months will have affected students in different ways. “You can’t cuddle them but you can give them the support they need,” said Higgins.
Each year group will have its own building and social area, so pupils in separate cohorts should never meet. Red spray paint marks a “no man’s land” dividing each year group’s territory. There will be no ball games in the playground, lest the ball go over the wall and be returned by a potentially infected passerby.
In such a large school in the centre of one of the worst-hit areas in England, Blue Coat school is almost certain to have at least one coronavirus case. About half of the town’s 122 cases in the week to 25 August were in the handful of neighbourhoods outside the school gates. In the same week, Liverpool had half as many cases despite being twice the size of Oldham.
When the first coronavirus case is confirmed, a huge detective operation will swing into action. The student’s precise movements will be tracked back over 48 hours: where they sat, who they hung around with, where they ate their lunch, how they got to school. Given the large size of its average class – 26 pupils, rising to 34 in some top sets, compared with 22 in England – potentially more than a dozen students will have been in close contact with that pupil. They will all be advised to get tested and self-isolate. Across the UK, disruption to learning is inevitable with many students in quarantine.
A challenge for the school, said Hollis, would be trying to calm parents whenever the first cases emerge. “One of the difficulties is that schools are rumour mills. One confirmed case, or somebody having symptoms, isn’t an outbreak,” she said. “You’ve got to manage the children, you’ve got to manage the staff, but you’ve also got to manage the community perception. You’ve got to be absolutely transparent but also you’ve got to get the message out to people really clearly that we’re managing this and we’re not going to take risks … but, equally, we’re not going to panic.”
Despite being the biggest secondary school in the town with the highest infection rate in England, Blue Coat has been given no more support by central government than any other in the country. It has been promised 10 testing kits, due to arrive this week, but they could be gone within days if a pupil falls ill with suspected Covid. “I think there is no doubt that Oldham as an authority needs more support,” said Hollis.
In Oldham town centre, 11-year-old Abby Mills is looking forward to her first day at secondary school on Thursday. She will go back to school with new skills, having decorated her bedroom and made her first cup of tea, but she has sorely missed her friends. “It’s been boring at home,” she said. Her dad, James Mills, 37, said he was pleased schools were fully reopening, “more for the mental health of the kids than the learning”.
“She can interact with us but it’s not the same as interacting with people her own age and that’s what we’re looking forward to,” he said.
Source: The Guardian