With the arrival of a safe and effective vaccine, the UK Government has started to look towards the reopening of society after lockdown.
In England, the Government is prioritising the full reopening of schools as a first step, with primary, secondary and college students going back to school the week of March 8.
Schools have been open throughout lockdown for the children of key workers and vulnerable children, but this will mark the return of valuable face-to-face teaching.
Many parents have thrown themselves into organising their children’s education at home, and advances in video technology have made remote learning a real alternative to in-person schooling.
However, child psychologists and senior school leaders all agree that face-to-face teaching is the best way for kids to learn – and to prepare them for the wider world. There are also huge benefits when it comes to a sense of routine, to mental health and to wellbeing.
Of course, like the rest of society – things will be different in schools and colleges than they were before. In particular, a new regular rapid testing regime will ensure that children returning to schools are as safe as possible that any positive cases are quickly identified, and that parents are protected as best as possible too, with testing also being extended to them, as well as childcare support bubbles.
City A.M. spoke to two individuals who are working to ensure a positive return to the best education for our young people.
“Schools allow children to have those building blocks to lead a purposeful and fulfilling life”
Kate Jefferson is the Headteacher at Millbank Academy in Westminster, a school for 300 pupils aged 3-11.
The 33-year-old is excited to have her full school back, and she’s taken her responsibilities to create a safer learning environment very seriously.
Whilst the school has been open with around 60 children during this lockdown period, a number of measures have been put in place.
“We’ve had staggered break times, we have had ventilation in classrooms,” she says. “We’ve had extra cleaning staff on site during the day between high traffic areas, like handrails, door handles, desks in classrooms in between lessons or when the children go out to break.”
The school has also ended whole school assemblies, instead running them virtually to avoid big gatherings. And the other measure is, of course, social distancing.
“We’ve had social distancing as much as possible,” she says. “And one thing that will be different about our return is that the Government legislation has changed slightly and teachers and school staff will be wearing face coverings a lot more inside school – any situation where they might come within two metres of someone else, they’ll be wearing a face covering.”
The other key tool in Kate’s locker is regular rapid testing.
“All our staff will be tested using rapid lateral flow tests twice a week,” she says, with strict procedures in place if anybody was found to be positive for Covid-19.
Primary students will not be tested on their return, but the provisions in place around staffing are designed to limit the impact of any positive test.
All secondary and college students will be tested at school in the week of March 8, and schools have been given flexibility about when to bring children back in to ensure that they can be tested efficiently and effectively on their return.
After three tests in school, they’ll be given rapid lateral flow tests to use at home.
For Kate, it’s crucial that schools are open.
“School allows children to have those building blocks to lead a purposeful and fulfilling life; it brings choice, it brings freedom, it’s empowering and it levels the playing field,” she tells us.
But for Kate it is also about more than education.
“Children have to return to the classroom to learn,” she says, but also “to socialise with other kids and access enrichment opportunities like playing instruments or engaging in sports. Some children will have really suffered with mental health issues, experiencing loneliness and boredom because of the separation from their peers,” she says.
“In school we’re best placed to give them additional lessons which are focussed on mental health, and allowing the children to have that time to talk through and share their experiences.”
The Schools Testing Plan
Now available for parents and childcare support bubbles
Government scientists agree that rapid lateral flow testing is a good way of testing large populations for the virus. In Covid-19’s case, the tests – which give results in half an hour – identify people with a high incidence of the virus, including those who are asymptomatic.
- Up to 1 in 3 people who have Covid-19 have no symptoms and could be spreading it without knowing.
- Rapid testing is a fast and easy way to find out if you have coronavirus. It’s free and takes around 30 minutes.
- It’s a simple swab test to the nose and/or throat, using a rapid lateral flow test.
- On return, secondary school pupils and college students will take three rapid tests at school to learn how to do the test and then continue to test themselves at home with test kits they will get from school.
- If you are a parent or adult in the household, childcare or support bubble you can now get tested too. You can either; get an assisted test at work if it is available, attend a test site to get tested or pick up test kits to do at home. Where these are not possible, there will be a small supply of tests online for people who need them the most.
- The more of us that take part and report our results, whether negative, positive or void, the more we can protect each other from the virus and get back to a more normal way of life.
- To find out how to get a free regular rapid test visit gov.uk/coronavirus
“Much more than academic performance”
Like Kate, and many parents, child psychologists agree that being in school is vital for children’s wellbeing – as well as their education.
“School is about much more than academic performance,” says Stevie Goulding, the Parents Helpline Manager at children’s mental health charity Young Minds.
“It also provides routine, a safe space where young people can talk to adults they trust and a place to be with their friends face-to-face,” she tells us.
A return to school also provides the opportunity for younger children to play together and gives older children the chance to re-socialise, according to Goulding. Additionally, she believes that being able to do wider curriculum subjects such as art, PE and music at school – along with clubs and group activities – will be crucial for young people’s mental health. “Children who are struggling with their mental health will benefit from face-to-face support from teachers, school counsellors, school nurses and other staff,” she adds.
The transition back to school life may seem daunting, but Goulding recommends talking about it with your child: “Let them know it’s normal to feel a mixture of emotions, that everyone will be in the same boat… and the current situation won’t last forever,” she suggests.
To find out more information visit gov.uk/backtoschool or speak to you child’s school or college.