On 22nd February, the Prime Minister announced the news that schools would be returning on 8th March as was widely anticipated. This lockdown has certainly been a challenge and very different from the first lockdown in 2020 and I think everyone has felt it. The weather has been different (even having snow), there has been a significantly higher expectation on home learning and communities are definitely experiencing lockdown and COVID fatigue. This is why it is so important that we get the return to school right.
We have heard in the media and in government that the best place for children is in school. You won’t find an educator anywhere who thinks any differently. It’s also worth pointing out that the best place for teachers is in the classroom! Although this isn’t covered as much, it is certainly worth pointing out that teachers also want to be back in schools with their children.
When we think about the return to school, we need to plan carefully on the right things and also consider all stakeholders. The lockdown and the restricted attendance in schools (we were never closed!) has affected children, parents and teachers alike. The needs of all must be considered if the return to school is to be successful.
The lockdown will have affected children in a range of ways. The beauty of our role as educators is that every child is unique – they experience things differently – and this will almost certainly be the case this time around. Here is what my school will be focussing on:
- Social and emotional support – children are social beings and they have missed the social interaction with peers. We need to focus on making sure that the children feel safe and happy and encourage them to communicate, share, discuss and play with others as these are things that are vital not only for their development, but also to support wider curriculum aims.
- Meet them where they are – everywhere you look, you hear ‘catch-up’ and ‘lost learning’. I don’t buy into that and rather see this cohort of children as individuals. Their starting points will be different to previous years because of their experiences. We want them to learn, but we can’t build on a foundation of sand. Meet the children where they are and teach them the next step for their learning. Don’t talk about ‘catch-up’ or ‘age expected’ or anything that compares them to others. Ask them to reflect on their own personal successes.
- Rebuild routines and behaviour – though they may fight against them, children love routine. They like to know what to expect and when to expect it. Having had time away from school, children will be out of practice of the routines you would like to see. Don’t expect them to just fall back in. Take the time to reteach and practice the routines and behaviour you want to see and make sure catch them doing it right and praise them for it. As David Clegg says, ‘A fence at the top of a cliff is preferable to an ambulance at the bottom.’
The impact of lockdown and especially home learning will also have had an impact on parents. Add this to the idea of sending children back to school when the virus hasn’t disappeared and there will be understandable anxieties. The return to school needs to managed well for them too.
My top tips would be:
- Communicate – talk to the parents. This could be through whole school messages or individual calls. The important thing is that you include the parents in the journey of returning to school. How they feel about the return will impact on the children. If you can support them, then the children will also feel supported.
- Be honest and open – when you communicate, be honest. There will be some things that you don’t know the answers to. You can only tell them what you know. In my experience, it is much better to say ‘I don’t know’, than it is to try and fashion an answer that later proves to be incorrect.
- Be visible – this is something I would advocate at all times and so it is especially important now. School leaders will be the calming influences that parents need to see. That smile (with the eyes as the smile will be behind a mask!) can be enough to reassure a nervous parent. It also will remind them of previous norms.
There seems to have been some negative media towards school staff over this lockdown and this is a real shame. From the staff in my school and from speaking to others in my network, I would say that school staff have been working harder and longer than ever. The return to school needs to be managed carefully and thoughtfully for them too. I think these would help:
- Clear the decks – the priority in the classroom has to be on teaching and learning. We should want our teachers focussing on nothing else. To do this well, we should be looking at getting rid of any obstacles that get in the way of the teaching, learning and assessment in the classroom. If that means we need to find ways of managing the admin jobs, or taking the strain away in other ways, then that should be our priority as leaders. Let’s make sure we keep the main thing, the main thing!
- Listen – just like with parents, there will be understandable anxieties of returning to school. School staff need to know that you are there for them. They need to know that you will listen to any concerns they have and act upon them as and when appropriate. Ultimately, they need to know that you stand with them and for them.
- Keep them safe – school staff hold the key to the successful return. If they are able to come in to work and do their jobs to the best of their ability, then the children will learn well. To do this, we need to make sure that they are safe. We need to make sure that we are looking constantly at our risk assessments and putting in mitigations to ensure that we have done everything we can to reduce transmission and minimise risk. We need to be understanding of individual circumstances and support individual needs.
The last point that perhaps is directed to those outside of the organisation is that schools need the time and space to do all of these things. Communities and public confidence have been affected by the lockdown. There are lots of things that can cause stress and anxiety. There now needs to be trust in the systems in place in schools, not only to support the safe return of children but also to ensure that they are able to learn well. High stakes accountability, such as Ofsted, monitoring visits and reporting on targets or milestones will only get in the way. We need to maximise the time we have so let’s not waste on rehashing information or reporting to all and sundry. Parents want their children back to school, children are desperate to be back in the classroom learning and teachers want to teach in the way that we trained for. It’s time to trust schools to do what they do best.