Returning to schools being fully open after the Covid-19 lockdown is going to be hard. It is very hard to try and predict what it will look like or when or how it will happen. Regardless of whether it is as early as May, or possibly not until September or even later, we have to hope that we will have a proper chance to plan and not 48 hours notice from a press conference. We must be aware that it will be a very different experience for every school and for the different people - children, staff and parents - within the school. We have some experience of returning to school that we can draw on. We experience this in miniature at the end of each summer holiday, but this return will be much more complex. We will need to be honest with ourselves and each other about how difficult this experience will be.
Whatever, the school setting there are going to be a number of key things to consider and include in our plans for the return to school for all.
Schools have not been shut
Despite the news headlines, we know that the majority of schools have not been closed and many school staff have continued to work in schools, including during the school holidays, though not always their own school. Further, the vast majority of teachers have continued to work providing education and support from home. We must recognise these experiences, particularly where staff have continued working over the Easter (and possibly the summer) holidays. Staff are going to start tired and this will impact on their ability to lead, manage and respond to change.
Don’t pretend that everything is normal
For many of us, adults and children, the return to school will be greeted with a huge sigh of relief and we will want to pretend that the world is returning to how it was, but we will all have been changed by the experience of Corona. It will take time for us to adjust to the ‘new’ normal. We will need to recognise and allow for this by being kind to each other and ourselves.
For many the re-establishment of routines will be difficult. This will not just be for school routines; it will also be for those basic daily life routines, such as sleep and getting up. We know that this is difficult and a source of anxiety at the beginning of every term, but this will be on a larger scale. We will need to allow a period of adjustment and be aware of the impact of trying to re-establish these routines for staff, parents and children. We will need to re-learn the rhythm of the school.
We are aware that different people will have had very different experiences during the lockdown. Some will have been in school throughout, though for them school will have been a very different place. The majority of children will have been at home and each of them will have had their own experience. It will take time to re-establish and re-learn the expectations of school behaviour and learning. We know that much of learning is based on practice and we will all be out of practice with this.
Differences in learning
Across schools there will be a huge range in what learning children have engaged in while not in school. There will be children who have spent every day, including the holidays, engaged in formal learning activities and completed every piece of work set by the school. Equally, there will be children who have not engaged in any focused learning activity for the entire time they were not in school. Most children will come somewhere in between. We need to be clear that learning from home is not the same as learning in school. We will need to respond to what children have learnt, not what we expected them to have learnt. We will need to understand what children have learnt and what they have forgotten. Preferably we will do this informally, to restart children’s schooling with formal testing will mitigate any focus on re-building relationships and exacerbate the anxieties about restarting formal schooling. It will be more important to value and celebrate what children have learnt.
Key to this celebration and recognition, will be to remember that much of what children may have learnt will be very different to ‘school learning’ and certainly not on the curriculum. We will need to take time to find out who has learnt to bake a cake, build a wall, become an expert on the Roman Army or the life of an Amazonian dolphin. Even more, those who have been a carer for a sick relative or dealt with grief for someone they couldn’t see. This learning and possible trauma is not on the curriculum but will be key to who our children are. Teachers’ responses will be key to how children are able to reintegrate into school and the people that they will become.
There is much in the media about the divisions between access to learning during the lock down for different children. This is epitomised by the case being brought by The Good Law Project asking Southwark Council to provide resources for children whose lack of access to electronic resources is effectively excluding them from education. This exclusion is happening across the country and hitting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged families hardest. Some of these children will be attending school on site, but many are not. There will be many children who did not meet the criteria of ‘vulnerable’ but are not able to access learning, on or offline. Their experiences will exacerbate the divisions between the haves and have nots.
Successful accessing of learning from home depends on many factors. As children become older, they may become more independent in their learning. But for the majority of children, learning will depend on the role of parent as ‘teacher’. This depends on parental skills, interest and commitment. It is further impacted by the parents’ work commitments, educational and language levels. Further there are issues of space to learn, as well as access to physical and online resources. We are aware that not all children have online and broadband access, but many lack access to basics like paper and pencils.
Further, we cannot assume that this is not an issue for middle class children. Just because a family has appropriate internet access, it does not mean that they have access to appropriate or sufficient devices to access education. There are particular issues where parents are working from home, impacting on their time to support education and increasing the demand on the family’s computer resources.
Difference between those who have been on site and those who have not
There will be significant differences for children who have and have not been on the school site during the lock down. It would be wrong to assume that those who have been in school are OK. We need to remember that these are our most vulnerable families. There may be issues of stigma as their vulnerability has been highlighted by the fact that they have been in school during this time. Further, there may have been a feeling for these children that school is their safe place and as others return to school, they are intruding on it.
Some of the children who have remained in school will be the children of key workers. For many of these, there will have been additional trauma. They may have experienced family separation as a move to protect some members. Even without this, they will have known that their parents were putting themselves at risk. The clapping for the NHS may have made children feel supported, but equally may have acted to highlight the risks their parents faced. The simple impact of not being able to hug parents when they returned from work will have been huge for many children. These children will need additional support as we begin the return to ‘normal.’
We will need to be really vigilant about children who have experienced abuse during the lock down. We know that a third of child sexual abuse and the majority of child abuse and murders occur within the family. There has been a significant rise in domestic abuse during the lock down. Many children will have suffered significant harm during this time. We need to be aware of this as a possibility for all our children, not just the ones we had identified as vulnerable.
In addition, we need to be aware of the threats and possible abuse that children may have experienced online during this time. There are increased risks from adults and the exposure to harmful images and threats. Further, as the lock down has forced more and more of children’s social lives to move online, we need to be aware of the increased risk of online peer on peer abuse.
We will need to ensure that children have safe spaces to talk about their experiences during the lockdown. We will need to ensure that all children have access to trusted adults who will listen them and are ready and trained to respond to them effectively.
We need to remember that it may take a long time for children to reveal any abuse. They may communicate it through behaviour and other indicators, rather than through disclosure. All staff need to be aware of this and able to respond appropriately and immediately.
There will be few communities that will not have lost members to the coronavirus. It is essential that we recognise this and take time to mark and celebrate their lives. Also, it is essential that we are clear with children who has died and who has not returned to our setting for some other reason- house moves, job changes, parents deciding to continue with home education, etc. This will need to be discussed, or children and social media will build up rumours and stories that will be neither helpful or healthy.
Even for those who have not experienced a death in their family or community, any illness will become a greater source of anxiety as the link between illness and death will have been reinforced in a way that was not common experience in twenty first century Britain. This will lead to more anxiety and may make many children (and adults) more risk adverse.
Many children will be looking forward to the return to school but will find being around people difficult, frightening and overwhelming, particularly if we move rapidly from social distancing to a return to school. We will need to be aware of this and support it. For some children this will be exacerbated by a fear of people in general. Having experienced weeks, or even months, of social distancing, children will have received an implicit message that other people are dangerous. Further, their experience of other people, beyond their immediate family, within their personal space will have been limited. For many the hustle and bustle, movement and number of people in school will be difficult. We need to be aware that many will express their sensory issues and anxieties about the proximity of others physically.
The majority of children will have become use to being with their parents and immediate family for an extended period. Even for those who are excited to regain their freedom and see their friends, this is a potential source of anxiety. There will be children who struggle with this separation and experience anxiety while they are in school, particularly where their family includes key workers or those going back to work in crowded spaces.
The impact of all these issues will be even greater for those with special needs. Their learning will have been impacted as will issues of being or not being in school, managing change, routines and anxieties. There will be particular issues with managing transitions into school and where there is a change of setting.
If we are not back to September, there will be particular issues with children who are transitioning from one school to another. Normally, we spend much of the second half of the summer term preparing children for their moves from primary to secondary etc. But potentially there will be many children who have left a school without a chance to say ‘goodbye’. It will be essential to mark this transition. We need to consider ways to invite children back to have closure, say goodbye and mark the transition. Remember that this should include any staff who are leaving and children making transitions at non-standard times.
Equally, there will be issues for children starting in a new setting. Some of whom may even be starting in a setting that they have not visited. It will be key to support their transition into school. We need to think about and consider the processes, we would have implemented for information exchanges with previous settings and parents, visits to the school or home visits to meet the children. We need to consider how much of this can be moved online and how much needs to be moved to September. It will be important for children starting at a new setting at any age to have a staggered start, slowly allowing them to become accustomed both to the new setting and either the new or returning experience of school.
Most children will have grown over the time that they have been out of school and so their uniform may not fit. Particularly if we go back to school on short notice, many parents will struggle to get new uniform for their children. This may be exacerbated by financial issues faced by parents without work and issues related to production, import and sale of non-essential goods. So, schools will need to consider relaxation of their uniform codes. Children will need to be welcomed back into school, not penalised for not having the right uniform.
Support for staff
As school communities we will need to support our staff, including those who have experienced loss and trauma. Some will have been in school without a real break throughout the crisis, while others may have been working exclusively from home. Others will not have been working at all. We need to allow ourselves time to rebuild and reform our school communities.
We need to consider particularly the stress headteachers have faced and their need for support. Many have made difficult decisions and had to respond to a barrage of government guidance which often has been less than clear. This was not part of the NPQH! There is a clear role for governors and MATs to support all their staff, particularly school leaders.
Key to all of this is going to be re-building relationships. We need to be aware that this will not happen overnight. We need to give ourselves time and be kind.
Ideas to consider for supporting children back into school
· Use of staggered starts. School is going to feel overwhelming as people return and we will need to re-establish routines and relationships. Consider using staggered starts and part-time timetables to support everyone to adjust and allow children (and staff) time to talk about and share their experiences and learning. A slow start will enable us to build resilience in the long term.
· Focus on rebuilding of relationships and establishing routines. Most schools start the school year with this. In this case, we will need to extend this process so that we establish a firm basis to move on from. Unless we give this priority, schools will struggle later on.
· Don’t start with formal assessments of what children have learnt. Balance the need to move on with the curriculum with the more important need to re-build relationships and mark the new start.
· Mark the transition, including inviting leavers back to say goodbye and mourning those your community has lost.
· Safeguarding training to ensure that all adults are ready and able to listen to children’s experiences during the lock down and respond appropriately to disclosures and indicators of abuse.
· Consider providing extra time and support for your DSL. After every school holiday, there is a rise in the number of disclosures of abuse. As children return to school after the lock down, this is likely to be even more true. The DSL will need time and emotional support to manage this effectively.
· Provision of safe places and trusted adults for children to talk to.
· If we are not back until September, would it be possible for children to start the school year with the teacher and/or in the same classrooms that they had last year and then change teachers at the October half term? How could this be managed and how would you support children where their previous teacher was not available?
· Review your uniform code to allow for children who are not able to get new uniform and/or whose old uniform does not fit.
· Consider how to provide additional support to children who have not accessed formal learning during the lock down. Remember that these may not necessarily be the children you expect.