As September approaches, that familiar back-to-school feeling is in the air again – only this year it feels different. While children, teachers and parents across the UK are tentatively looking forward to returning to something approaching normality, schools are busy adapting their spaces and rules to accommodate UK government guidelines designed to keep children and staff safe.
Meanwhile, some parents are understandably apprehensive about the full return to school, and are keen to know exactly how their children will be protected. “If you’re anxious about your child’s return, start by reading up on what actions the school’s put in place to help your child come back to school safely, so you feel really well informed,” says Cassie Buchanan, headteacher of Charles Dickens primary in Southwark, south London.
“Then, if you’re still worried, contact your school and speak to your children’s teachers or headteacher. They’ll be able to talk things through with you, and if there’s something specific you’re concerned about, put a plan in place to help your child return to school safely.”
The intention for all children to return to school next term was announced back in July, and attendance will be compulsory for all but a few pupils – for example, if a GP advises against it.
Although such a large-scale return to normal might feel daunting, schools such as Charles Dickens have been working hard to manage the risk of Covid-19.
Staggered drop-off and pick-up times will help avoid long queues at the school gates, teaching hand-washing and hygiene is a priority, and children will learn and play in bubbles alongside their classmates and year groups. In the event that a child tests positive for the coronavirus, they and the adults and children in their bubble may be asked to quarantine.
“Parents need to know that schools are as safe as they can be, and that if schools have put all the guidelines into place, then they’re really low-risk places for children to be,” says Buchanan. “They also need to know that schools are the best place for their children in September, for their wellbeing and learning.
“The return to school is going to be hugely positive for children’s mental health – being with their friends, testing their personality, learning how to be with people, getting face-to-face feedback from their teachers, and being able to celebrate their work publicly.
“They’ll also benefit from being able to run around and do music and dance, design and technology – those things that require space and equipment, which you can’t really do if you’re homeschooling. It’s so important for children to be with others of their own age, and enjoy all those joyful things we remember from our own childhoods.”
Since lockdown in March, the prevalence of Covid-19 in the UK has significantly decreased. Schools are working with the NHS test-and-trace system to contain any outbreaks that might occur, and over the past five months, we’ve learned a lot more about how to create safer environments.
Viv Bennett, chief nurse of Public Health England (PHE), wants families to feel safe in the knowledge that everything is being done to assure children are protected.
She says: “Parents can be reassured that to maximise safety in schools, a stringent system of controls has been advised by PHE and is published in Department for Education guidance.”
In a joint statement issued on 23 August, chief medical officers across all four nations highlighted how staying away from school could exacerbate children’s mental-health issues – something that Buchanan has seen first-hand in both parents and children, despite the best efforts of everyone involved. And as a headteacher, her priority is the happiness and wellbeing of her pupils.
“We’ve seen lockdown as a challenge, and tried to rise to it, but it’s been most challenging for those children who’ve been at home all this time,” she says. “It’s really hard to learn at home, especially if your parents are trying to do their job as well, or you’ve got siblings trying to learn around the same kitchen table.
“We completely understand how complicated and tiring and stressful it’s been for parents too, which is why we’ve been so keen to reopen. And the thing children have really missed, not surprisingly, is their friends. We want children to be happy.”
As well as putting in place measures to protect children from the risk of coronavirus, Buchanan has also been thinking about the emotional wellbeing of children who might be worried about returning to school, anxious about reconnecting with friends, or out of touch with their usual routine.
“At Charles Dickens, we teach children how to talk about and name their emotions, so we’ve been encouraging parents to do some of that work at home,” says Buchanan. “We’ve recommended that they start talking with their children about their worries now, and discuss how likely their worry is to happen – is it a big worry, or quite a small one we can work on together?
“We’ve also talked to parents about sleep and routines – getting back into a sensible bedtime, and talking about what a morning looks like when we’ve all got to get out of the house – and asked them to read through all the information we’ve sent out about the changes we’ve made, to familiarise themselves with it. School will still be school in so many ways.”
And, says Buchanan, teachers are looking forward to the return to school just as much as pupils. “Teachers want to teach – they want to be in a room with their pupils and develop those teacher-pupil relationships, don’t they?” she says. “Our teachers are so excited – they’ve been in their rooms, putting up displays and sharpening pencils. It’s keeping them out of the buildings that’s been the difficult thing.”
Safe travel to school
Masks are currently mandatory on public transport and although children under the age of 11 are exempt, September will see extra pressure on travel networks as children return to school. Wherever possible, young people and their parents are encouraged to travel to and from school under their own steam – preferably by walking or using a bicycle.
The UK government has also provided local authorities with extra funding to get pupils to school and college – for example, by hiring coaches. Where it’s not possible to find an alternative to public transport, make sure your child is aware of the rules around how to travel safely, and knows how to take extra care.