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After lockdown, can schools be trusted to handle the return?


IT’S the end of term but all the talk is about the return to schools in September and what school will be like after an absence of almost six months for more than 80 per cent of pupils. 

Much has been made in the media about teachers’ concerns over risk of the virus and the measures that are being adopted to ensure schools are ‘safe’. School premises are undoubtedly going to be cleaner than ever before. That, sadly, is the only good news.

When schools closed in March, parents were given responsibility for educating their offspring, without consultation or notice. Many were also suddenly thrust into working from home. In the haste of their lockdown U-turn, the government failed to consider the feasibility of simultaneously working from home and home educating.

Some families with furloughed parents seized the day with banana bread, bike rides and Joe Wicks sessions. But for the majority it proved a fraught time of negotiation between spouses, partners and single parents over timings of work calls, conferences or outside the home shifts. Some parents tag-teamed to divvy up the lesson content where it was provided by the school, many frantically searched for activities to occupy our children’s time. The juggle struggle – not a new concept to the working parent – was played endlessly to the background of Zoom.

A whole new career was forced on us. The joy of teaching homophones and fractions descended upon us regardless of our knowledge or skills. Thank goodness for English with Holly at 11 every day! Even with the support (or too often the lack of it) offered by the school, parents still had to print off poorly aligned worksheets, log on to learning platforms and explain things they’d never come across in their own education (‘expanded noun phrase’, anyone?) Never mind the families without computers, internet access or printers.

Now schools are publishing plans to return, again seemingly without consultation on how this affects pupils or parents. It brings to light the already poor communication and ever-changing government guidance of recent years. The new post-lockdown ‘rules’ include staggered drop-off times, reduced school hours, limited after-school care and no or few extra-curricular activities.

The damage done by this abrupt pause in children’s education is already well documented. The Institute of Education has reported on the vast difference in the provision schools across the country made for their pupils. In his paper Schoolwork in Lockdown Professor Francis Green describes the outcome as an epidemic of educational poverty. 

The detrimental impact on children’s health, neglected by much of the mass media, has been reported in the Lancet Public Health. Professor Uta Frith discusses the consequences for  mental health here, while the evidence of comparable absences suggests an impact on the educational attainment and mental health of all children affected.

How are these children, many already affected in various ways, going to cope with going back to school? Where is the attention to that? 

Schools pay much lip-service to mental wellbeing but in my experience of teaching children yoga, there are few initiatives to support children in the practical sense of dealing with anxiety and stress. Breathing exercises might be displayed on the noticeboard and mindful activities on the website but nothing happens these days without ‘funding’. Will there be teachers or volunteers prepared to organise in its absence? Will we see a new post-lockdown ethos of going beyond the narrow call of duty, a new exemplary volunteer spirit in teachers to help the children in their charge?

Kids hoping to be going back to a ‘familiar’ environment after a long absence will be disappointed. To many it will appear alien as desks are moved apart, facing the front with many of the fun practical elements removed: teachers are aghast that there will be no laboratory experiments, cookery lessons, singing or contact sports. Furthermore, after a long period of absence from their friends, some schools are proposing children wear masks in the corridors, muzzling natural communication and that all-important ability for children and teachers alike to read facial expressions. A new world without smiling? 

Forcing classes into ‘bubbles’ means that the year 6s won’t be helping nervous reception kids with their lunch tray and the year 12s won’t be showing the year 7s around – those lessons in kindness, care, and manners lost.

Parents too will be kept at arm’s length, some schools are insisting parents wear masks at drop-off and collection. Others won’t allow parents on site without an appointment, others are not allowing parents full stop. Gone are nativity plays, sports days and parents’ evenings for the foreseeable future.

Finally, school leaders need to ask how children are going to cope with a full school day after six months away from structure and routine, especially with the increase in restrictions. Given their vastly differing experiences educationally, socially and emotionally, bringing them all back together will be a challenge that shouldn’t be underestimated.

As for parents, many of whom have not felt supported by the schools, is it not unreasonable to be wary of schools’ proposals given that so many have failed to be in touch with the pupils or marked their work? 

If we felt let down by the lack of pastoral and education support during closure, how can we trust these same people to help repair the damage?

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Christine Brett
Christine Brett
Christine Brett is a co-founder of the campaign UsforThem for children to return to school normally. You can become a supporter here

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