‘My hand was licked within the first five minutes.’
This isn’t the kind of reception most people will be expecting when they return to work post lockdown. But for primary school teachers across the UK, it’s a scary and palpable danger. For as much as you might attempt to counsel them, children aren't always able to interact in the new way that the coronavirus pandemic requires of us.
‘The student has a lot of sensory needs so there wasn’t a lot I could do to prevent it,’ Jemima, a primary school teacher in East London, tells me on her commute home from her first day back at school.
On March 18, prime minister Boris Johnson announced that schools would close indefinitely for up to eight million pupils in England during the health crisis. The decision marked the first countrywide school shutdown in modern British history. In the nine weeks that followed, teachers were faced with the gargantuan challenge of creating entirely new curriculums from scratch, interacting with students remotely using online resources, and some being called on to teach a number of vulnerable children, and children of key workers, in school buildings.
However, as lockdown measures began to relax at the end of May, the government announced that schools would be among the first establishments to re-open their doors. On Monday June 1, Johnson asked primary schools to welcome back children in nursery, Reception, year 1 and year 6, in addition to priority groups.
‘Alongside good hygiene and cleaning, one of the main protective measures we can take to reduce transmission is to have small group and class sizes,’ it states in its guidelines.
The decision to reopen schools, despite the government continuing to enforce social distancing guidelines to the wider public as Covid-19-related deaths continue, has received ‘very mixed’ reviews from teachers, parents and educational governing bodies, according to Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) heads' union.
This week, some head teachers have reported ‘highly variable’ levels of attendance, with a recent survey from the National Foundation for Educational Research finding that almost 50 per cent of children would be kept at home by parents. Meanwhile, some schools have postponed reopening their doors entirely, with Kevin Courtney, the National Education Union co-leader, stating that delaying it would ‘make our communities safer’.
With schools in other areas of the UK scheduled to reopen later this month (Wales) and as late as August (Scotland and Northern Ireland), Johnson’s decision begs the question: has it been too soon to welcome back students as we continue to fight the virus?
We spoke to three female primary school teachers to find out what it’s been like returning to the front line in England and how safe they feel in the workplace.
The new ‘play time’
According to government guidelines, prior to schools reopening classrooms should have been adapted to allow ‘bubbles’ of up to 15 children and staff and to remain ‘apart with masks, gloves, aprons and hand sanitiser delivered to schools to keep safety measures in place’.
In addition, children are now required to stay within their ‘bubbles’ wherever possible and staff must ‘implement a range of protective measures including increased cleaning’ and ‘utilising outdoor space’.
The practicalities of enforcing social-distancing among children has been one of the biggest concerns for parents and staff. As anyone who has been around a child in lockdown will know, enforcing the two-metre rule is as possible as finding flour in Sainsbury's.
Last month, Debbie Whiting, a headteacher at a primary school in Norfolk informed parents Facebook that social distancing would 'never' exist. ‘I can tell you quite honestly that there is no such thing as social distancing in a school - we can try but we certainly cannot guarantee it,’ she warned.
Daisy*, who is currently working in a ‘bubble’ with Year 1 students at a primary school in Crawley, West Sussex says explains how her place of work has done its best to adhere to the governments’ advice.
‘We’ve set up the classrooms so that students’ desks are at least two metres apart, there are dots on the carpets where you can sit and markers on the ground outside to show parents where they can drop students off,’ she says. ‘It’s incredible how we’ve kept the school’s friendly environment without it feeling sterile with the introduction of hand gels and soaps everywhere.’
Jemima informs me that her primary school has enforced a one-way system around the school to avoid the possibility of crowding in the corridors, fenced off playground equipment, staggered break times and covered books in clingfilm to prevent contact.
‘We’re also getting the students to make their own personalised soaps with small toys inside which they’re carry around in Tupperware boxes,’ she says. ‘It’s a great incentive to get them to wash their hands regularly.’
Daisy's school now operates on a rota, which sees teachers and students divided into shifts and attending school every other week in their bubbles. The school also shuts on a Wednesday at lunchtime, to allow for extra deep cleaning on top of the weekend's cleaning. ‘It’s complicated – there’s a lot to get your head around.’
Anyone with a friend, relative or partner who is a teacher will know that teaching the curriculum is just one element of the role. In addition to educating children in maths, English and science, teachers are expected to develop students’ ‘soft skills’ like communication, leadership, social intelligence and problem solving.
Fortunately, guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) has stated that schools will not be penalised if they fail to offer a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum when they reopen, given the pressures teachers now face amid the pandemic.
‘It will not be business as normal in schools, both because of the protective measures which will need to be implemented, and because children will need to be supported in returning to the school environment,’ explains Barton.
Alice, who teaches a bubble of Year 4 and Year 5 key workers’ children in West London, says that she and her colleagues have found their roles change dramatically since returning to the classroom.
‘Prior to lockdown, we’d started to teach the students how to wash their hands properly and discussed hygiene, but now that we’ve returned to school we’re having to be increasingly strict with what they’re allowed to do and adapt our teaching styles,’ she explains.
The 27-year-old notes that she is trying her best to balance enforcing social-distancing rules, but doing so in a way that doesn’t scare her students.
‘They’ve got a lot of questions and worries about germs, hugging their grandparents and coming into contact with each other,’ she says. ‘It’s our job to try to explain the guidelines and the virus in a way that is not only comprehensive, but also so that it doesn’t leave them with long-term fears when it comes to health and socialising.’
‘One of the biggest lessons we teach children is to share, so it seems rather counter intuitive to now be instructing them to be insular in their actions,’ she adds.
‘We’ve found the students sometimes feelings quite anxious and upset that they can’t see their friends at play time and being away from their families. We’re trying to be as supportive and hopeful as possible, but it’s hard helping them understand that this isn’t a permanent situation.’
Jemima notes that that in addition to teaching her students new vocabulary like ‘teamwork’, ‘empathy’ and ‘compassion’, she’s also getting to grips with being more vigilant when it comes to her students’ health.
‘We take everyone’s temperature three times throughout the day today,’ she explains, describing the experience as 'quite post-apocalyptic’. ‘We’ve also allocated two rooms for children who might show Covid-19 symptoms where they can go and sit with another member of staff, who will be dressed in PPE, until their parents can come to collect them.’
Ongoing health concerns
As lockdown measures relax and returning to the workplace becomes a near reality for the majority of employees, many of us are coming to terms with the idea of coming into contact with colleagues again and adapting to new working environments.
Dr Tara Reich, a reader in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at King's College, recently told us that staggered work hours and prolonged working from home might become the new norm. But will that be enough to quell employees' concerns? A recent survey carried out by YouGov found that 44 per cent of employees are feeling anxious about returning to their workplace because of Covid-19 and 31 per cent are concerned about their commute.
When it comes to the safety of reopening schools at least, the government has outlined that there is ‘moderately high scientific confidence’ that younger children are less likely to become unwell if infected with the virus. A recent study by scientists from the University of Warwick's Zeeman Institute echoed this view, suggesting that the reopening of schools, both primary and secondary, is ‘unlikely’ to result in a significant increase in the number of infections.
However, several primary schools, in the likes of Derbyshire and Yorkshire, have been forced to close their doors this week, after staff members and pupils tested positive for coronavirus and urged parents to self-isolate. Teachers are among essential key workers continuing to put their own health at risk for the good of others.
At the beginning of lockdown, Jemima, who has previously suffered from myocarditis – an inflammatory disease of heart muscle – admits that she was incredibly nervous about becoming ill with Covid-19. However, she has found that returning to work has been ‘overwhelmingly beneficial’ for her mental health.
‘I’m more nervous to teach students I don’t know in the same “bubble” than getting Covid-19 now,’ she says. ‘Lockdown made me realise how proud I feel to be a teacher and of everything that we’ve been able to achieve as a school, whether it’s adapting to online learning or handing out food to vulnerable parents.’
Daisy agrees, noting that working with the children of key workers during lockdown helped her feel ‘less anxious about the prospect of returning to the classroom full-time’.
‘I’m not worried about contracting Covid-19 as I’m confident that the measures in place at my school are as safe as they can be,’ she says. ‘School is no less if a safe place than popping into the shops is.’
While Alice has enjoyed returning to school, she’s found it strange to enter the workplace when so many people she knows continue to work from home.
‘All the advice tells you to stay at home as much as possible and to not be in crowded rooms,’ she says. ‘Teachers are back in classrooms which are very busy with children who find distancing themselves difficult at the best of times.’
‘Emotionally, I’m exhausted. As teachers, we have a similar sadness to the children. A school is a busy, lovely place full of people but the atmosphere has changed a lot. Lunchtimes are quite boring as you can’t sit and chat with your colleagues in the staff room. It’s taking its toll on everyone.’
As for whether it’s too early to return to her place of work, Jemima argues that there will never be a ‘right’ time.
‘We’re lucky as we haven’t a single case of Covid-19 at my school, among staff or students, but I’m confident that my employers have made it as safe an environment as possible. For anyone worried about going back to work, they must make the best decision for themselves.’
* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
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