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When bubbles become boxes- Schools in the world of Covid

As we struggle to half term, I find myself reflecting on the impact of Covid and the lockdown on schools. We started this term with a huge sense of relief that the vast majority of children came into school safe and well. We feared they would be exhibiting trauma, but most children were enthusiastic and relieved to be back in school. However, half a term on the cracks are beginning to show.

The impact on staff

For staff, this term has been truly attritional. We have been worn down by the demands and the restrictions. Primary school teachers have been stuck in their classrooms with their class with little interaction with the rest of the school, often with reduced breaks and lunchtimes, no assemblies or hall time to break up the day. For those in secondary, they have lost their base and move from class to class teaching in rooms without the right equipment for their subject specialism. Again, they are unable to meet, socialise or communicate in real life with those beyond their subject area. All communication in schools has taken more effort and has often broken down along with the Wi-Fi.

On top of the isolation, there have been additional demands of preparation for remote learning, burst bubbles, constant sanitising and policing of social distancing and the worry about infection and its possible impacts on our own families.

Every school leader deserves, at least, a medal. None of us will get a pay rise! They have managed the complete re-organisation of their schools as well as constant government demands and changes. The issues of masks, risk assessments, laptop allocations, OFSTED visits that are not inspections, health and safety phone calls, bubbles and tiers, staff absence, food poverty, broken budgets and stressed staff and parents and much, much more have all landed on their desks as well as the normal everyday stresses of school. This was not on the NPQH course. The toll of managing it has felt overwhelming, yet we have kept going!

All these demands on staff have little directly to do with teaching and learning, but hugely impact staff wellbeing. This in turn, impacts their capacity to provide the education children deserve or emotional support they need. We are working on empty and continuing to give, this is not sustainable. Without more support, I fear schools will break.

Children’s Social Interactions

Like the staff, children’s social interactions in school have been reduced. These social interactions are not just a ‘nice’ side issue of being in school, they are key to learning and social development. The children are getting fed up with being in the same group day after day. They miss their friends in other classes and year groups outside their bubble. They are missing out on the role modelling and social interactions that come from mixing with a wider circle. They have had months where their primary interactions were online and with the return to class, they have had only limited opportunities to increase this. Further, over lockdown many of them have forgotten how to play, they are confused by the rules of social interactions and many of these have changed. Quickly and increasingly, games are turning aggressive or children are playing alone. We have taught them that others are dangerous and potential carriers of disease and this is reflected for many in their play. Alternatively, large groups of secondary pupils continue to interact largely via their phones as this is where they feel safer and can interact with those outside their bubble.

Difficulties seeing themselves as part of the wider community

The subdivision of schools into bubbles means it is hard for children and staff to see themselves as part of a wider school community. This was summed up for me, by the bemused look on the faces of our reception children during the fire drill, as they saw the rest of the school. Who were these other children and where had they come from? This was the only whole school event we have had this term. Similarly, Year 7 pupils starting secondary school have seen about 4 rooms in the building, they have only seen the other year groups in passing and at a distance using the staircases and corridors forbidden to them. Unlike the Reception pupils, they know that the others are there, but it is difficult to build a sense of community or belonging at a distance. Much of the fun that makes schools a good place to be, lies in the sense of community. Without this our schools are weaker, and our wider communities are under threat. Particularly, as we approach a Christmas like no other, we are going to need to try and work this one out. It may sound minor, but it is going to be key to our survival as effective institutions moving forward.

Lack of transition

Working in SEND and beyond, this term has been undermined by the lack of transition and information sharing. With our pupils coming into Year R, we missed the nursery and home visits. Many of the children missed key time in nursery. This means that they missed key development, particularly social development, and we missed time to assess and understand any difficulties. This was further exacerbated by medical appointments not made or not kept during the lockdown. Our children have arrived in school with the lowest level of educational and social skills and the highest level of special needs I have seen in over thirty years of teaching. This has been added to, in many cases, as we were not able to develop an understanding of these children and their needs before they arrived, so we were not able to prepare for them. They have arrived without the support they needed to start school successfully. I do not necessarily mean EHCPs, but the simple tweaks and adaptions we put into our classrooms every day. So, we and they have been put in a position where an already difficult transition has become yet more challenging.

Communication with parents

At secondary level, schools worked immensely hard in the latter part of the summer term to put transition support in place for children and share information about them. But I feel that a key element of the transition process was lost- the transition for the parents. I know as a parent and teacher that the transition from the close, and for many daily, relationship with a primary school to the much more distant relationship with a secondary school is hard. This year, this has been exacerbated as parents have been forced to send their children into largely unknown settings with limited face to face information. For many parents of children with even the slightest special needs this seems to have translated into a sense of panic which has been aggravated by the difficulties of communication. So, parents are demanding their children receive additional support, which in many cases is already in place, because they have not been able to build the trust in the school that they can and will meet their child’s needs.

Effective communication with parents is an additional challenge of the current situation. In primaries, we can’t have the quick exchange between staff and parents at the classroom door or gate. Face to face meetings about more serious issues are difficult and largely dependent on the online communication which many of our most vulnerable parents struggle, for all sorts of reasons, to access. Without the engagement of our parents, we struggle to support our children.

Final thoughts

Every online meeting is punctuated by the refrains ‘Can you hear me?’ and ‘I think that you are on mute’. As we go into the second half of this term, we need to find some way to make sure that we can hear, be heard and most importantly are listening to each other and our children and parents. I feel we are teetering on the edge and are really going to need to pull together to maintain our communities if our schools and children are going to get through the next half term intact. Key to this is going to be for school staff to look after each other and above all be kind. We will have wobbles. We need to try and catch each other, even if this has to be virtually.

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