Back to school, 2020 style

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It’s a confusing time for those of us who have children returning to school in the next week or so. With many children not having been in a classroom since March and a COVID-19 vaccination clearly a long way off, I’m hearing all sorts of opinions from mums and dads. Many are expressing unbridled joy at kids returning, others are happy but apprehensive while a small number are refusing to even entertain the idea that schools should open their doors again.

Back to school. School bag with face mask, book, calculator and pen.
Back to school 2020: If schools can reopen they should, but this is going to be unlike any other school year and I predict many of these changes will be long term.

I’ve had various thoughts on this subject rattling round in my head for weeks. I wasn’t going to write about them, but I’ve been asked so many times for my thoughts that I thought I’d get them out there!

Ultimately, I feel we are now at a point where we have to balance children’s emotional and mental health with the risks posed by COVID-19 to both youngster’s physical health and the physical health of all school staff. I welcome the reopening of schools, but the following issues have both concerned me and influenced my thinking.

The schools never actually closed

As anyone with even the slightest involvement with the education system will tell you, the schools never closed in March. Their capabilities and functions may have been reduced, but in England (see what I say about Scotland below), the children of keyworkers, plus pupils in Years One, Six, Eleven and Thirteen returned to school in some capacity.

My eldest child was in Year Six so returned to school in June. I saw what measures the school had in place and both she and I had time to adjust to the new normal.

Confident and reticent parents

Following on from the above, I find myself wondering if a division has formed between us parents. There are those of us, like Mrs Adams and I, whose children returned to school. Our children have some experience of the ‘new normal.’ Us parents have also adjusted to it.

The return to school is not a huge step in to the unknown for families like mine and so we are more confident about the schools re-opening. It’s quite understandable parents whose children didn’t go back to school in the last school year would be more reticent.

Ignore Scotland at your peril

Over recent days, Westminster-based politicians have been quick to take to the airwaves and social media to discuss the return to school. The media has been saturated with headlines on the subject. This all ignores one massive and awkward fact: Scotland follows a slightly different academic year and its pupils are now in the second week of the 2020/21 academic year (In Northern Ireland, schools went back this week).

As luck would have it, I’ve just returned from a brief trip to Scotland. I can reliably inform you the cafes, parks and footpaths are once again bristling with school kids at the end of the school day. It was a rather happy reminder of pre-COVID days.

We have a massive opportunity to learn from the successes and mistakes of what happens in Scotland and a picture is already forming. It’s early days but a small number of schools have had to close over the past fortnight. If the rest of the UK follows Scotland’s lead, localised school closures will simply become a way of life for the foreseeable future.

This is no short-term thing, it’s the new normal

One of the hardest things us parents need to accept is that the measures put in place to keep COVID-19 in check will be in place for a long time. For my kids, this means no after school clubs, a change to the start and end time of their school day, longer lessons and shortened break times. They also won’t get the opportunity to mingle with children from other year groups.

There’s going to be a massive impact on PE lessons. Sports equipment can’t be shared and children need to stay in their PE kit all day. This is bound to have an impact on the kind of outdoor sports kids participate in because they won’t be able to get muddy and wet.

The face mask issue is a really interesting one. My eldest is about to start in Year Seven so needs to get settled in a new school and make friends. At the moment, she won’t have to wear a face mask in school but if that changes, it’ll be tough for her and other newbies to socialise if they’re meant to cover their faces in communal areas.

We have also had guidance from our youngest child’s school making clear mums and dads must collect children at the end of the day and leave immediately. There is to be no socialising at the school gate. This pulls the rug on what is, for some people, a vital social support network (not so much for me, I’m a dad so I’m often ignored).

Some of these changes represent an absolutely gigantic shift in how schools operate. It seems safe to assume these measures will be in place for at least this academic year. In other words they’re not special measures, they are the new normal and parents and children alike have got to accept them.

 Some people can’t send their children back to school

We all need to be mindful that some people simply can’t send their children back to school because either the children or their parents have health conditions that prevent them from returning. Talk of fining parents for not sending their children back to school is bad enough. For individuals in this position, it must be exceptionally painful.

Over 40,000 people in the UK have died after contracting COVID-19. It’s not a vacuous threat and while we have thus far avoided a large scale second wave, it is a possibility and people who have genuine concerns need to be treated with understanding and respect, not mocked or threatened with punitive actions.

Schools can’t stay closed forever

There’s a lot I could say about this country’s lack of political leadership. The exam grades fiasco is a classic example and some of the messaging politicians have used to entice people to get their children back in to the classroom has been very dubious. I’m not going there in this blog post!

While I am cynical, there has been no large-scale second wave of Coronavirus. Some things are clearly being done correctly. If schools can be opened, I can’t help feeling they should. Some schools will close again but that is simply a price we’re going to have to pay.

I saw the impact on my kids when my eldest child went back to the classroom. She adjusted to the new normal very quickly and got on very well with her learning. Socially there were issues. It was like lifting the weight off a pressure cooker and all the steam rushing out. Some of my daughter’s classmates struggled after months of lockdown creating various friendship issues. Our youngest, meanwhile, became completely demotivated with her home-based learning when her sibling returned to the classroom.

Our kids have missed enough classroom-based learning already. Schooling has to change, but if face to face teaching can resume, it must.

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