Sending your child back to school (June 2020)

This piece was written in June 2020 and formed part of my portfolio of work for the University of Lincoln. It remained unpublished until January 2021 on, after my final grade had been awarded.

Sending your child back to school

By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.

With coronavirus still disrupting our lives in countless ways, there is a possibility you are now able to send your children back to school and their Early Years setting. We have spoken to some experts to try and gain an insight into the reasons why some year groups are back, what has changed, if it is safe to send your children and what teachers and parents are thinking.

Who is back in school?

Some children from Early Years, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 are heading back to school for their third week, though it is estimated by the National Foundation for Educational Research only 54-per-cent of eligible children are in school and as little as 52-per-cent of schools are re-open for pupils. To bombard you with further statistics, according to the Department for Education as of June 4 the number of children in school only represented 6.9-per-cent of the total number of children normally in education across all years. It is clear therefore that only a tiny proportion of children are back in education.

What changes are in place?

Classes have to be in bubbles of no more than 15 pupils who are taught by the same teaching staff and do not come into contact with other children or staff outside of their bubble. With young children it has been taken into account that social distancing will not always be possible so instead the focus is on hand washing very frequently and sneezing and coughing into a tissue and binning it to avoid spreading germs.

Soft furnishings have been removed from classrooms and children are sitting at their own desks spaced out across the classroom with their own stationary.

“At my child’s school the teacher has done the Reception children little packs of stationary, bricks and Lego which is disinfected regularly and stays on their desk all week.

“We also have to send them in clean clothes every day and only their lunch boxes and drinks can come from home,” says Isabella Hicks, mother to Rupert, aged five.

Children eat in their bubbles in their classrooms and have a specific toilet only their bubble can use. Outdoor learning is encouraged as much as possible as scientists believe the transmission rate outdoors is much lower, especially at a distance of two metres and there are staggered drop-offs and pickups to minimise adult contact.

Testing is available to all staff and children, and if a child becomes unwell, they are to be tested as soon as possible. The rest of the bubble are likely to be asked to self-isolate for 7 days or more or until the result of the test comes back.

Why those year groups?

The focus from the government is getting children back in the classroom from transition year groups as it is feared the longer they are out of the classroom, the further they will fall behind. The government produced a 50-page document and explained the reasoning behind the year groups.

“Children in Reception and Year 1 are at the very beginning of their school career and are mastering the essential basics, including counting and the fundamentals of reading and writing, and learning to socialise with their peers.

“Year 6 children are finishing Key Stage 2 and are preparing for the transition to secondary school and will benefit immensely from time with their friends and teachers to ensure they are ready,” says the report.

Helen Childerhouse, an educational expert from the University of Lincoln, isn’t convinced by the year groups chosen to return.

“It seems strange to send Year 6 pupils back into their primary schools.  I would have suggested that they attend transition sessions at the secondary school they will be attending in September.

“Early years children are unable to follow social distancing expectations due to their age and lack of understanding and they require much greater management. I would have expected Key Stage 2 and secondary pupils to return first,” she remarks.

When will other years return?

Plans for the rest of primary aged children to return before the summer break have been scrapped by the government in favour of schools having more flexibility to open if they feel they can safely do so. This has caused a lot of controversy since its announcement on June 10 as it will mean some children are out of education for six months assuming they can safely return by September. However, this isn’t a certainty.

Private schools with smaller class sizes have the room to open for more children but without clear guidance on how to do this from the government, insurance companies will not sanction more children attending.

Headteacher Claire Ogden of Ayscoughfee Hall School, a fee paying prep school in Spalding, said: “I would love to get more children back in school, we have worked out numerous scenarios to facilitate this from a rota of classes attending bi-weekly, to full attendance for all if the numbers are low enough. The issue we have though is our insurance company will only act on clear advice from the government on how to operate this safely and at the moment, this is not forthcoming. Having the flexibility to open if we have room isn’t enough and we need more information,” explains Claire.

Under current guidelines from the government, children in each bubble have their own toilet separate from other bubbles with a one in, one out system.  Most schools do not have the capacity to adhere to this rule with more children in school.

Is it safe to send my child back to nursery or school?

Ask two scientists and you will get two different answers as unfortunately so much is still unknown about the virus. Covid-19 has created a huge amount of debate on transmission amongst children, and it still isn’t clear if children infect adults at the same rate as adults transmit the disease. What is clear, though, is that the virus isn’t as deadly for children with just three children under the age of 15 sadly passing away since the start of the outbreak according to official government statistics, which demonstrates the risk to life for children under 15-years-old is extremely minimal.

Dr Walter Lucchesi, a lecturer in Biomedical Science at Royal Holloway, University of London, has a special interest in virology and explains this further. “In this particular case of SARS-cov 2 children might spread the virus at different rate, similar to being less prone to develop COVID19; a protection that so far is not fully explained but clearly observed. This is a question mark that will need to be resolved.

“We should always remember the original guidelines of physical distancing, minimising interactions and simple hygiene such as washing hands, not touching your face and not sharing glasses or food. Children have already missed out on education and essential social activities with social and psychological impact, so it is important to try and get them back safely.”

Without a vaccine, living with coronavirus will become a necessity, potentially for years to come. The choice to keep children at home for their safety might have to be a long-term decision which is hard for working parents.

“If SARScov2 has got a seasonal pattern, which personally I predict it will have, then it is likely that it could come back in late autumn or early winter. Therefore, scenarios and models that will help us to tackle this perspective are essential and the word is preparedness,” says Dr Lucchesi.

Many schools have decided to remain closed to all children other than those of keyworkers beyond June 1 as they did not feel they could safely re-open yet. Some of those schools did re-open this week for more children, suggesting that, by the summer holidays, more children from the transition year groups may return to school as parent’s views soften.

“I would always suggest that health and safety have priority over curricular delivery. Schools provide so much more than just education and this is not always acknowledged.  Schools have the privilege of supporting, teaching and caring for parents most precious treasure and it is their duty to ensure that children and their families are safe in the first instance,” says Helen Childerhouse.

What are teachers saying?

A Year 1 teacher who regularly posts on Netmums under the name WoWsers16 spoke to us about her experience so far: “I have loved my first few weeks back. I have a class of 28 and 16 have returned so we have put them into two bubbles of 8 as we believe more will be back in the coming weeks.

“Our headteacher has done an amazing risk assessment which focusses on the wellbeing of staff and children. Whilst we are doing the core lessons to catch children back up, we have shifted our focus to wellbeing and mindfulness.”

Emily Patman, a Reception teacher, also confirmed the focus has been on mental health. “It is important to make the children feel comfortable in their surroundings as it is quite different. We regularly do a feelings circle and we have done lots of songs and activities about coronavirus and why we are socially distancing. The children have taken to it so well and I am comfortable to teach under the current guidelines from our headteacher,” she says.

What are parents saying?

The debate on school social WhatsApp groups has been extensive and at times personal and negative. Laura Andrew, a mother to two boys, decided to send her four-year-old back to school.

“It felt heated in the group chat for our year. Those that had chosen to return our children were being judged by certain people who were not. Especially when you are being sent article links and information informing you that your children are being used as guinea pigs,” remarks Laura.

Kate Reed, a mother to two from Boston, decided to keep both her children at home. “Knowing my son, I don’t know how he would get on with social distancing and I felt it might have been a bit stressful for the teachers to have to patrol them all the time. Having said that he would love to go back to school, he loves learning at school, but not so much at home.”

Roxanne Wallis, a mother of two boys from Yaxley, has also decided to keep her children at home. “I do not wish to send either back to their settings. I think my primary concern at the moment is the ability for teachers to keep high enough levels of hygiene up with many students in an age group not particularly known for their exceptional hygiene. Added to that concern is the fact that I am pregnant and it’s making me more risk averse to the situation. My fear is that we are being lifted out of a severe lockdown too early and this is raising the probability of a second wave.

“If the government had decided to charge parents, I would have made the decision to home-school long-term as I am not sending them back in September if the situation remains the same as it is now,” adds Roxanne.

Sandie Hutchinson decided to keep her six-year-old boy at home. “He was a very poorly baby so looking at the reports in the media, I felt I couldn’t bring myself to send him, fearing the worst.

“The first week only five children returned to his Year 1 class but he was so upset to be missing out, I decided to send him the second week and he is so much happier back at school. A further five parents also decided to send. I guess we just wanted to wait and see how the first week went for other parents,” explains Sandie.

What if I keep my children off, will they be disadvantaged?

A huge catch-up plan is currently being devised by Educational Secretary Gavin Williamson in an attempt to bring children back to an even level when they can return. The initial part of the plan is to make internet free and accessible for all children to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to learning.

Teacher Sharon Clarke, a supply teacher with a teaching career spanning more than 30 years, explains what she thinks will need to happen when children return. “Children having more than six months out of education and varying levels of parental input from lots of home-learning to none will need to have a focused entry back into education. The government will have to drop the levels of expected learning to make this effective, and instead I think teaching will have to return to much more traditional, grassroot methods for core subjects. There is so much pressure on teachers to meet targets but in order to ensure children do not fall behind there will have to be time to focus on reading, writing, maths and English initially, going over and over until they are back to the level of understanding expected,” she says.

Helen, the educational expert, expands on this further. “Circumstances will play a huge part in the level of support and pastoral and academic input children need.  Teachers are incredibly skilled at shaping their provision to meet the needs of individual children.  I feel that the focus should be on pastoral and social support in the first instance.  Children are not able to learn academically if they are unhappy, insecure, frightened or unsettled.”

With so much uncertainty around coronavirus and a clear message of “stay home” from the government for so long, it is unsurprising parents are divided and nervous about their children returning to education. The government have a long way to go to get schools ready for more children by September and it is likely that education will be disrupted for a long time to come as rates of infection rise and fall in certain areas across the winter months. It is important to make the right decision for your own family and take advantage of the educational resources available if you are home-schooling to keep your children learning, though their mental health is equally as important at such a troubling time. Tag us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know your own story about school and if you have sent your children back or are continuing to home-school.