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Back to school: What does a return to school during the COVID-19 pandemic look like?

by Kritika M Narula

Early on in the lockdown induced by the Coronavirus pandemic, education secretary Gavin Williamson acknowledged that the continued school closures will have a detrimental impact on children’s progress because of the lack of pupil-teacher interaction. The government has also been in favour of a gradual return to school as against a complete lifting of the lockdown. Thus, the government suggested a phased return, starting June 1st. Children in Reception and Year 1, along with Year 6 have initially returned. 

Let’s take a look at how this phased return has turned out, so far. Official statistics from the first week of June showed that just over half of primary schools in England reopened and only a quarter of the children from these three year groups managed to return. It is important to note that even through the lockdown period, most schools have remained open to vulnerable children and the children of key workers. In keeping with this fact, the Department for Education figures report that 91% of educational settings were open in the first week of June, a sizeable rise from 80% in May. 

It is especially important for these three year groups to stay on track with their educational journey. As Dr Stephen Curran explains, it is important for Reception and Year 1 children to learn uninterruptedly for the development of their basic numeracy and literacy skills. The same argument extends to Year 6 students, whose junior school experience would otherwise be tainted and their skill development impeded.  

Murray Morrison, a leading education expert and founder of EdTech learning program Tassomai.com connects the dots, “There is certainly a need to get children back into formal education as soon as practically possible – the risks around a widening attainment gap that disproportionately affects poorer children and the increased pressure on families to support home-learning for months are two compelling reasons to push to restart.”  

The question, then, is simple: what does the return to school entail? What plans do the school management and educators have, if any? Are the parents and/or children scared or are they looking forward to it?

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How are the parents feeling about this?

While parents are palpably worried about the impact of these events on the children, they’re also positive about the return to school. One parent based in Portsmouth expressed her concerns about the transition, “My oldest is due to start school in September and I’m worried about how the pandemic will affect his transition.” The fears about the transition after a prolonged distance come from the potential dissonance it could create – it is bound to be an adjustment for children who have been housebound for weeks – and not necessarily from the idea of return.

It is the same concern echoed elsewhere, too. Dr Kate Mason, who is a parent and a clinical psychologist herself, believes that this is a ripe time for a parenting lesson in resilience, “I'm seeing lots in the media about the likelihood of our children developing anxiety and depression with lots of scary statistics, but it's not necessarily the experience of COVID and the lockdown that will dictate whether or not anyone develops a mental health difficulty; it is about how they process the experience and bounce back.” 

It is a matter of providing children with the right tools, but for the most part, children are extremely happy to be coming back. Danielle Fletcher, a digital strategist/coach in Leicester and a single mum to two boys aged 4 and 7, shares, “As soon as it was announced that the schools might be reopening, I knew my younger son would want to go back straight away. He is quite advanced for his age, so he needs to go back to learning. I knew they were going to put strategic measures in place. They play football while observing social distancing, they are washing their hands – so I am not worried about the health risks. But my son is extremely excited and eager every night before school. He is even ready in the morning, hours ahead of school time. For me, it's been the best decision to send him back to school. He was missing his friends, he needs structure, he needs to be learning.” 

Experts generally agree. Over 120 experts in the field recently signed a strongly-worded open letter, addressed to the education secretary, invoking the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 3) that calls for the authorities to look at the best interests of the children. The letter urges the government to change social distancing advice in such a way that summer play schemes and education providers of all types are able to open.

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What’s the catch?

It is evidently clear that children need peer interaction and routines for their wellbeing. Despite this, Fletcher shared that in her son’s class, the attendance was still fairly low.  Even though the class was split, only 6 children were present in the room. 

For schools, operating at full capacity while also maintaining physical distancing is not possible. As an example, each school bus can now carry just seven students. This means it is only feasible to carry one-fourth of the usual number of children. Bringing children back to school in larger numbers can be extremely tricky, logistically. Kate Young, CEO of the Safeguarding Association, sheds light on the other, lingering challenge, “All of this is compounded by the health-related fear that a single case of coronavirus infection could shut down the entire school.”

Schools can try to accommodate different students on different days of the week. Schools can also look towards blended learning strategies. None of the solutions, however, come without their unique set of challenges. 

Morrison takes an incisive look at these challenges, “The issues, as I see them, are around irreconcilable problems of school capacity: that is, teacher and timetable capacity and the physical space available. We know that it will not be physically possible to accommodate students while maintaining existing social distancing and safety guidelines, so for education to work at all, we need to see some considerable funding to make sure a blended learning strategy can work, with software and hardware provided, along with some better support for families who will inevitably need to still host their children at home for a portion of the school day next year.”

Now that the governing bodies are slightly more familiar with the pandemic, planning ahead for the next phases is highly recommended. Young, too, acknowledges that this is a tough task nevertheless – figuring out how to launch into operations in a shifting, precarious landscape without any guidelines. She suggests that the governing bodies and senior leadership at schools should chalk out these plans with inputs from everyone and then be extremely communicative with all parties involved – educators, parents and children. 

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Plan of Action

In order to effectively and safely move forward, schools need to strike the right cadence. Children will learn through interaction and play, but they simultaneously need to abide by the social distancing measures for public health protection. 

The UNESCO Framework for Reopening Schools looks at six dimensions: policy, financing, safe operations, learning, reaching the most marginalised and wellbeing/protection. Policy considerations and financial requirements together create the enabling environment needed to support each of the other dimensions. Young agrees with this approach, “There’s a need to have an open and fluid conversation, keep a good working relationship and the finance departments might well have to lead the conversation around costing of all these measures.” 

How can this approach be implemented effectively? All schools did not manage the lockdown in the same way, so their responses to the lifting of the lockdown are also going to carry some disparities. At the same time, every child had a different experience of the lockdown. Thus, safeguarding children at this point would mean taking actionable steps that are in line with the safe operations, learning, reaching the most marginalised and wellbeing/protection dimensions of the framework. Some of these steps would include:

  • Providing them robust access to counselling and mental healthcare, as it is possible some children were exposed to varying levels of domestic abuse or alcoholism.
  • Staggering the different elements in the schedule: start and close of the school day, mealtimes, breaks.
  • Holding school in shifts, to reduce class size.
  • Retaining and reinforcing all accountability structures as before.
  • Rethinking mobility and movements, for example, the teacher can move from one class to another instead of a significant number of students doing the same.

Schools can try unconventional approaches too. Young recollects one school that has physically reopened, but was still teaching through online tools. That way, the children can meet their friends and socialise, and at the same time, study in a safe environment with minimal physical interactivity. 

Heading back to school is in the best interests of the children. However, with physical distancing and hygiene measures in place, going to school will have a vastly different connotation for them than it did pre-pandemic. Communicating with them and checking-in with their feelings will be just as imperative as placing appropriate safety measures within the school premises. 

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posted 4 months ago
Kritika M Narula
Kritika is a research and media professional based in India.