Getting every pupil back into the classroom is a challenge like nothing else faced by primary schools before. The issues that need to be addressed, mitigated, and resolved are still many in number and the thorny issue of how to keep staff safe from catching Covid-19 is producing different responses across the profession. The official government line that teachers will not require personal protective equipment when back in the classroom with full classes has been met with grave concern by many if social media is anything to go by.
Launching straight into a new term without addressing the concerns of our school communities is bound to affect wellbeing. And given that concerns are not universal, this is a significant challenge.
The key issues that schools and parents are still grappling with concern helping the whole school community to feel safe and positive about the return to school in the face of significant confusion, and mixed messages from the media and officials.
This website carries useful downloadable resources on many aspects of the return to school. There are activity packs for children and their families to do in the last weeks of the holiday in preparation for the new term. You might also want to consider some of these ideas when equipping everyone for a psychologically healthy return to school:
Talk and listen
Keep communication flowing in the run-up to the start of term so that concerns are aired and discussed as much as possible. It is crucial to appreciate that each family and staff member has a unique set of circumstances and that in these most challenging times, that uniqueness needs to be acknowledged. We may well have goals for how things must be in September, but those goals will require the people in our communities to absorb different degrees of risk. That will cause anxiety.
Before term starts initiate contact with those in your care so that there is no doubt about any new expectations and procedures. We know from informal surveys, discussions in the media and widely shared opinions on social media that some people are extremely worried. Initiating contact helps to ensure that there is a route for that concern to be expressed. This can only help for things to run more smoothly once school opens fully.
Mitigate with flexibility
Risks will need to be mitigated, and this is what educational establishments have worked so hard to ensure, but blanket pronouncements, for example on what is or is not necessary when it comes to keeping people safe, may not be sufficient to help everyone to feel safe enough to begin the term happily.
These will vary, and each voice needs to be heard - child and adult. Can opportunity for this expression be built into the early weeks of the new term, perhaps through the curriculum or through additional activities?
This has to be the utmost priority for community members and their families. Some schools have already suffered losses in their immediate or wider communities and reassurance will be essential, especially considering recent findings that school closures played a significant role in reducing infections, as reported in the Guardian: “The evidence is clear that schools are important in the spread of Covid-19,” [Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia] said. “Our studies show that, across Europe, closing schools was the single factor most strongly associated with drops in infection rates.”
Despite what some headlines have led us to believe, lockdown and school closures have not been inordinately challenging for all children. For some children, having the opportunity to learn away from the classroom has been a blessing (the Special Needs Jungle Coronavirus SEND education survey demonstrates this). Some children have reported feeling safer and more settled with distance learning. If we are serious about supporting the wellbeing of all the children in our care, then we need to explore in detail why this might be so that significant numbers of children are not being disadvantaged by the system they find themselves in. Perhaps a first step, if it hasn’t already been taken, might be asking parents and children about what worked well for them during school closures. From these responses, what is it that needs to be replicated once schools are fully open again to ensure the physical and emotional inclusion of everyone? A return to “normality” may not be serving all equally well, so perhaps we have an opportunity here to place wellbeing even more at the centre of our next steps forward.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.