- After months of being closed, nursery and primary schools in England began reopening on June 1.
- While some parents are worried about safety regulations and reopening too soon, others are eager to have their kids resume lessons, citing concerns about their children missing out on important social interaction.
- Schools have also rolled out new programming focused on emotional education and mental health to help students deal with any anxiety from returning to class.
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Education used to be about the "three Rs" - reading, writing, and arithmetic - but English primary schools have quickly shifted to the "three Ss" of staggered starts, hand sanitizer, and social distancing after reopening this month.
Schools had been closed to all but vulnerable children and children of essential workers in March, but as of June 1, all pupils in nursery, reception, and years one and six have been allowed to return to school in England as part of government efforts to ease lockdown restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. Welsh schools will start reopening at the end of June, while Scotland and Northern Ireland are aiming for August.
English schools have had to make plenty of changes. Government guidelines based on Public Health England advice say surfaces, equipment, door handles, and toilets should be cleaned regularly and children should be kept in smaller groups of no more than 15 to one teacher and teaching assistant.
The guidance recognizes that younger children may not follow the two-meter social distancing rules, but advises that different groups keep away from each other and teachers minimize contact. It suggests staggered starts, separate lunch breaks, and one-way corridors.
However, unions and scientific advisers have expressed concerns about the speed and safety of the reopening as while there are low levels of infection among children, it is unknown how much they transmit the disease. This has been reflected in the turnout.
Adapting to the 'new normal'
Courthouse Green Primary School in Coventry normally has around 90 children each in reception and year one. Half of the pupils in each year group have returned to a new one-way system, their own learning hubs of 10 pupils, and cleaning and stationery stations. Each hub has its own lunchtime and an outdoor play area, but cannot mix with other groups.
Children and their parents line up two-meters apart during staggered drop off times and are let in 10 at a time every five minutes. All staff have their own personal protective equipment station with visors, aprons, and masks that can be used when administering first aid.
Additionally, Courthouse Green has let its black and ethnic minority staff work from home or with different groups such as older children where social distancing is easier in recognition of the higher number of coronavirus cases for these communities. The school closes at 2 p.m. on Fridays for a deep cleaning.
"Teachers and adults are staying as much as they possibly can at a two-meter distance from the children," said Sarah Malam, the school's head. "That said, you cannot abandon a child if they are crying. I had one child who was upset last week so I held their hand, and then it's just important to wash your hand thoroughly afterwards."
Reopening schools can make families feel less isolated
The National Education Union claims 44% of schools in England are not accepting more pupils, while the Office for National Statistics said fewer than half of parents have sent their children back as of the start of June.
Home learning is still continuing, but sending a child back is a better option for some, particularly single parents like Natasha Starr. Starr, who runs a baby and toddler music class called Hartbeeps, lives with her five-year-old son Bear and said their mental health is more important than whether or not he would catch the virus.
"We have felt isolated during lockdown as we have had limited contact with others," Starr said. "I am self employed and the sole income provider. I was an angry impatient mummy when we were doing home schooling and felt guilty that his social life and education was taken away."
Starr said the school reopening has alleviated some of the worries and now Bear gets interaction with his friends and finds his "magic bubble" exciting.
Teachers are working to help students overcome any anxiety
Most children are likely to be excited at the prospect of returning to school and seeing their class and teachers, but it's not so easy for those with special needs such as autism who rely on normality to function. That is a daily challenge made harder for Portfield, a specialist educational needs school in Christchurch, Dorset.
"Our students like routine, so any change to the environment causes anxiety and distress," the school's head Jemma Dudgeon said. "We had to give lots of warning and produce videos so we could walk children around to show them what the new layouts looks like."
Normally students at the school can make use of its swimming pool or soft play which helps with water therapy and sensory work, but these can't currently be used under government guidelines, so new breakout spaces have been created.
"We have been trying to make school as normal as possible by keeping students with their familiar adults," Dudgeon added. "School is a break for the families as it means they can get on with the shopping and the washing, so it's important that we have been open."
Schools are emphasizing emotional education and mental well-being
The government has amended curriculum rules for all schools so teachers can prioritize outside activity, focus on helping pupils catch up, and develop the fundamentals such as reading.
Organizations such as Heads Up Kids have also launched well-being guides that hundreds of schools have downloaded to help children understand the changes and discuss their feelings and any concerns. The social and emotional side has been an important factor in parents sending their children back.
London-based business coach Ruth Kudzi has a three-year old girl in nursery and a five-year-old in reception.
"It's not just the education, but the social and emotional learning they have missed out on," she said. "I felt they couldn't go without that from March until September."
Kudzi said her children did initially find it difficult as they had been at home for almost three months, but they are adapting.
"My youngest was upset on one drop off and the lead teacher held her hand and say it was OK," Kudzi shared.
"There is a balance. If a kid is upset, the teachers are going to make sure they are OK in the safest possible way and if that means giving them a cuddle, they will do that. I trust the school and they wouldn't reopen if it wasn't safe."