Blog: Welcoming children back to primary school as lockdown restrictions ease

Published: 4 Jun 2020

Author: Andrew Smith
 Blog: Welcoming children back to primary school as lockdown restrictions ease

I am currently working as the headteacher of a primary school in Tower Hamlets. The pandemic of the past few months have provided many challenges as we adapted to the rapidly changing circumstances and changed our approach to meet the changing needs of the community.

"Looking forward, I have told my staff that this is not about returning to normal but about building a new normal based upon evidence, equity and empathy." - Andrew Smith, Fellow 

Initially our parents were worried about the virus, and so we focused upon ensuring every family was safe and understood the risks and what they needed to do to stay safe. This included sending home multilingual materials to educate parents in the risk of coronavirus, as well as regular phone calls home. We quickly prepared packs of work, which we sent home, containing stationary resources and books we thought the children would need. We did not realise how long it would be until we saw the children again or how much they would need the school over the coming months.

We started online learning immediately, by sending home daily work and providing feedback and ideas as to how they could structure their day and fill it with investigations. We welcomed back into school the children of key workers, who appreciated being able to go to work, and our staff felt very proud they were supporting NHS staff.

Over the Easter holidays, we noticed a change in our community, as parents started to approach us with concerns over finance and access to food. Local shops had raised their prices of key essentials such as rice, food banks were focusing upon the elderly, and parents were not able to get the food they needed. We therefore worked with local charities to provide hot meals and, when we opened after Easter, our focus changed to providing food to our vulnerable families. On top of the free school meal vouchers we send out every week to 120 families, we provide 55 food bags collected from food banks and another local school, as well as around 100 meals a week prepared by restaurants. We have now begun to distribute breakfast supplies, as well as cleaning products and sanitary products such as body wash and toilet roll. Parents are increasingly worried about access to technology and the effect of lockdown upon their child’s education, so we are sending home more textbooks, iPads and resources to support them at home – we even sent home 75 art packs for our reception and nursery children, as we were worried they did not have enough craft resources at home.

As the schools and the country reopen, we are entering the balancing act of reopening the school whilst ensuring it remains safe. Throughout this crisis, my role has been to try to identify what information is important and make decisions based upon evidence and advice from the government, local authority and unions. Increasingly, the messages are in opposition to each other, so I have looked locally and focused upon what my school community requires.

We have some parents keen to get back to work, who are looking forward to sending their children back to lessons. We have some families who are struggling to support their children at home, who will welcome the respite and chance for their child to get back to a structured day. Many other parents are still worried and reluctant to send their children to school.

There is a lot of misinformation in the press and one of my roles has been to ensure that everyone understands our risk assessment and can return to school safely. We have therefore consulted parents and staff, and decided a teaching rota that allows children to come into school and also supports them at home. We are currently reorganising the school, by removing items from the classrooms that cannot be easily cleaned and setting up one-way systems and reminders of social distancing. We are opening on 8 June in a way that supports our school and our children.

Looking forward, I have told my staff that this is not about returning to normal but about building a new normal based upon evidence, equity and empathy, asking – Who is it we now listen to? How do we continue to support our community through sharing resources? How do we continue to support the wellbeing of our community beyond the academic expectations of the school?

I know that our children who need the most support have had the least, and our most disadvantaged will be even further behind. How do we now ensure that these gaps are not allowed to grow further?

I take heart from one of my most vulnerable families who, when I popped round with a bag of food, pulled out a homework book they had made and described how they sit together every day and work together – the whole family getting involved. The parents wrote supportive comments on the work and described the joy it had given them to work together. They thanked me for the food and asked if they could share it with their neighbours. Hopefully this time has brought families together and made us all a bit stronger.

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