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I am sat on a train. Four rows in front of me is my daughter, Helen. She has told me we must sit apart and act like we we don’t know each other.

First journey to school in September 2020: man in face mask taking child to school for first time
First journey to school: When I thought about my daughter’s first day of secondary school, I never imaged face masks would be mandatory!

I wouldn’t normally agree to such a bizarre request, but this is her big moment and so I go along with it. We’re undertaking a simple, short journey but throughout it, we communicate via text message.

It turns out to be very simple to pretend we don’t know each other. This is, after all, September 2020. By law we’re required to wear face masks on public transport. This means we can’t see each other’s faces below the eyes and this makes it easy not to acknowledge each other.

Helen doesn’t look over her shoulder at me once. I know that I should be offended by this, but in reality I find it quite amusing.

You’re probably wondering what I’m describing. It was the journey to school and it was a significant one. Why so? Well, it was Helen’s first day at secondary school.

Okay, let me be precise about this. Helen was travelling all the way to school. Thanks to COVID-19 and the restrictions put in place to control it, I was not allowed on to the school site. Whereas Helen disembarked and went straight to school, I simply returned straight home (…having sent Helen a text message wishing her a marvellous day!).

With my daughter sat in front of me looking straight ahead, my mind drifted to Helen’s first day of primary school. That was a completely different, yet equally memorable, experience. I couldn’t help thinking there was a huge contrast between the two occasions.

It was an overcast, September day when Helen started primary school seven years ago. Izzy went to nursery early that morning, allowing Mrs Aadms, Helen and I to pile into the car together and dedicate all our attention to our eldest child.

Rather randomly, Helen was a huge fan of an old song by The Who called Boris The Spider (See for yourself how random the song is) . She insisted on listening to this on the way to school. She put the song on repeat and turned the stereo up to an ear-splitting volume making any conversation all but impossible.

Considering how schools are presently operating, it seems odd to think about what happened next. This was seven years ago, COVID-19 didn’t exist and the school wasn’t split into different zones. There were no bubbles and parents and children could mingle freely.

It didn’t escape my attention that parents with older children attending the school had broken off into little groups. In time I would realise these parents were much harder to get to know because they already had their social networks in place and weren’t so bothered about us newbies. It was an example of the playground hierarchy in full effect.

After a short wait in the playground, Helen’s teacher came and lead her class inside. Sometime later, Helen admitted she was nervous and had butterflies when she went into that classroom for the first time. You’d never have known it on the day. She just wandered straight in without looking back to Mrs Adams or I.

And yet here we are, seven years later. That same child is now at secondary school. It is truly frightening how quickly these moments come around.

I also made one interesting observation. When Helen started primary school, there were almost as many dads present as there were mums. On the journey to secondary school, I only saw mums waving their kids off or knew of mums transporting their kids to school.

I was dismayed by this. I couldn’t understand why more dads weren’t involved in this first day of high school milestone. It would have been nice to see more guys alongside the mums, waving children off and wishing them well.

Moving on, how do I feel about having reached this milestone? I feel like I should be quite emotional about Helen starting secondary school. I was in bits when her primary school was suddenly closed back in March. Although she did return to school for a month in June, her primary school years came to a brutal end and it didn’t feel right.

When it comes to her starting secondary school, I simply feel relieved that we’ve got to this point, not just for Helen but for Izzy, my youngest daughter who started in Year 3 on the same day.

I hate to make everything about COVID-19, but this generation of school children has missed so much learning already. I’ve spent the past couple of months analysing the news very closely, looking for hints that school re-openings may have been delayed, or that schools might introduce hybrid learning: A fortnight in school, a fortnight of online learning at home etc.

I appreciate hybrid learning may be necessary if we get a further rise in Coronavirus cases, but it’s far from ideal for Year 7 pupils who need to get used to a new school system and get established making friends and so on. It would be disruptive to all pupils, but especially new starters.

I am delighted both my kids have returned to the classroom. Unfortunately, the shadow cast by COVID-19 has taken some of the shine off of what was a big milestone for Helen.

I just hope for all children the schools can now stay open. They need the interaction with peers and teaching staff. Us mums and dads did the best we could over the past few months, but the majority of us aren’t educationalists.

Getting back to that first journey to school, the contrast between Helen travelling to her first day at primary school and her first day at secondary school were palpable. She’s growing up and she doesn’t want dad holding her hand on every journey.

Yeah, okay, it hurts that she didn’t want me to sit with her, but only a tiny bit. I found it amusing that I was relegated to sit behind her, sending text messages.

She’s getting independent. That’s the way of the world and one of the bittersweet aspects of being a parent.

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