In the final article, a Midlands junior school headteacher describes how the optimism of a return to school in the autumn of 2021 gave way to the grim reality of the second lockdown
Once more into the breach
The 20/21 academic year started. It was lovely to have everyone back in school albeit in their separate bubbles. Parents were, as always, extremely supportive of everything we had done and were doing. They followed all the rules implicitly. The children were absolutely superb! They came back with such enthusiasm and happily followed the new rules. The staff, as always, were just phenomenal: taking everything in their stride and just coping with it all.
Windows and doors were opened every day to ensure that we fulfilled the government stipulations regarding adequate ventilation. Children and staff got used to wearing multiple layers of clothing to cope, particularly during the winter months! Children came in their PE kits on their PE days (an absolutely fantastic idea!!!). Shame it took a global pandemic to come up with this idea, but something we will definitely be keeping post-pandemic.
Everyone got into the routine of washing their hands multiple times per day, it obviously taking a considerable amount of time out of the day to get 30 children to complete such a task.
The Computer Subject Leader worked quickly to train all children in using Microsoft Teams as an online learning platform. They also created staff training sessions so that should we need to, we could move to online learning. Information was sent home to parents and the Autumn Term passed by. Whilst not ‘normal’, it was enjoyable to be all back together.
However, as the Autumn Term came to an end, the pressure from some teaching unions was at its highest. Peak. From reading the Press and social media, It seemed many schools were struggling with lack of staffing and the Covid ‘R’ number was increasing. Some schools were having to close multiple bubbles. Some teaching unions were demanding that schools shut and the government was threatening legal action against any who did.
Over the Christmas holidays there was no let-up in the stress levels. I spent the last three days of the holidays (1st – 3rd January 2021) amending our risk assessment and holding an ongoing online conversation with the Deputy and the Chair of Governors as we decided whether we would be able to open in January. Following my own union guidance, I canvassed opinions from all staff. They were all happy and willing to be in school.
Here’s another fine mess you’ve got us into…..
We opened to all on Monday 6th January. That evening, Boris Johnson made the announcement that schools were to close to all but vulnerable children and children of key workers. We informed all parents that we would be closed on Tuesday 7th January, the next day. All staff came into school and once again the Deputy and I created new systems. Whilst we were able to amend what we had used before, the government was now quite vociferous about the exacting standards they expected. More than just Maths and English had to be taught for a start, but they were also expecting schools to use online learning platforms. Thanks to our previous forward-thinking and the hard work of our Computing Subject Leader, the staff and pupils were good to go with using Microsoft Teams, so this was not a problem. However, it was an untested system.
On that 7th January, the Deputy worked out the logistics of staff rotas for on-site provision; plus the logistics and expectations of using Microsoft Teams as our online system. This had added complications as many children/families did not have easy access to computers and/or the internet. All children had been able to access the PowerPoint system used in the first lockdown – even if this meant a parent downloading it on their phone. The use of Microsoft Teams meant that potentially, multiple siblings were trying to access online learning at the same time as each other, plus potentially at the same time as well as their parents who were expected to work online too. We came up with a system whereby all children were expected to join a live ‘registration’ meeting first thing in the morning, then they had all day to access and complete Maths, English plus one other subject each day, submitting their completed work online.
Each class was split into smaller groups which were allocated separate online meetings in the afternoon which they could attend if they wanted to; to be able time to talk to each other and to their teacher. Children could ask for help from their teacher who was available via the ‘chat’ function throughout the school day, with separate video chats being organised if it helped. Children working on-site were given no preferential treatment – they simply did exactly did the same. The staff were organised into a rota, but this time when the Teachers were in school, they were still continued with live daily meetings and answering any questions members of their class had, as well as looking after the children on site.
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There was no before/after school provision as staff were becoming quickly exhausted. They were working from early in the morning to late at night, at the beck and call of children and parents, holding live meetings, planning subsequent lessons and trying to provide a full curriculum which met with the exacting the standards stipulated by the government – all the while fearing some unscrupulous parents might be recording them and putting them on social media and/or ridiculing or berating them for their efforts, something which had been seen in other schools. Luckily for us, as far as we know, our parents did no such thing. They were all extremely supportive of everything we did. There was only one query as to why we weren’t ‘doing what another school was doing and providing multiple daily lessons of live teaching. Our new systems were started on Wednesday 8th January with some children eligible to be on site and many children learning from home.
It’s lockdown again…but not as we know it
This lockdown felt different. There were far more parents demanding places for on-site learning; but also the numbers of families which we felt were ‘vulnerable’ had increased judging by the weekly phone calls made by myself, the Special Needs Coordinator and a Teaching Assistant who was trained in various counselling skills. These phone calls became longer and longer as we listened to various harrowing tales of how families were finding it increasingly hard to cope; indeed the Teaching Assistant basically spent one whole day per week just making phone calls.
We had to change the system by which food was provided for children who were entitled to Free School Meals. Our food providers had been providing food parcels during the Autumn Term for relevant families if they had to self-isolate, – these had been in complete accordance with government guidance as to on their content. However, after a family (not from our school) had decided to get their few moments of fame and take photos of the food parcel and put derogatory comments about quality and quantity on social media, asking how a family was supposed to live off it. As is the way with such comments, many others had piled in and it had got quite nasty – to such an extent that our food providers had decided they would no longer set themselves up for such targeted abuse. I totally understood their reasoning. We reinstated Co-op vouchers, which once again, had to be distributed to the steadily increasing numbers of families now eligible for such support.
Then there was the debacle of the technology provided by the Government. We were initially told during the Autumn Term that due to their algorithms, we would be allocated some 20+ laptops/tablets. This soon reduced to something like 6. Choosing and ordering them was surprisingly simple and they arrived in school very quickly. However, they were nowhere near the numbers that we knew we needed, so we purchased many more from our already over-spent budget. After some time we were given notification that we could then order more laptops from the government, which we did.
This lockdown was shorter – schools re-opened to all after the February half term. We were back to the previous ‘new normal’ of separate bubbles, staggered starts/ends and breaks. Children returned and coped extremely well, despite one class bubble having to close twice. Staff were superb, returning to deal with wearing masks, carrying out twice weekly Lateral Flow Tests and not being able to see many other staff. Parents were also amazing, extremely supportive and continuing to following all the social distancing rules that we had put in place.
As the year progressed we managed to hold some of the usual events, just with slight differences, including individual online parents evenings, weekly online assemblies, special end-of-year Year 6 events and transition visits for the ‘new’ pupils in preparation for the 21/22 academic year. When the government reduced some of the restrictions made upon schools, we moved from six individual bubbles to two larger bubbles, thus splitting the school in half. This meant that we could move back to eating in the hall and playing as large groups on the field at break and lunch times in the last two full weeks of the academic year. A particularly emotional moment was when we managed to hold a whole school assembly on the penultimate day of the academic year on the school field, with the two halves of the school separate from each other. I asked the children to raise their hand if this was the first time they had been together as a whole school – half the school of them did so.
No idea what they’re doing
So here we are: it is now August 2021. The new academic year is due to start. The daily emails from the Government /DfE have continued since their commencement during lockdown 1, each one containing guidance which needs to be read and analysed to ascertain what has changed. The new risk assessment for the 21/22 academic year has been written. All staff and parents are aware of how school will run next academic year – supposedly. We are all ‘back to normal’.
However, all schools also have to have a robust contingency plan in place for when it all goes horribly wrong again. The latest government initiative is that all schools will be sent carbon dioxide detectors so that we can ascertain which parts of school do not have adequate ventilation. There is no guidance as to what to do once these areas have been located and certainly no mention of money being provided to schools to do anything about it. The only guidance the government gives is to open more windows and doors and/or teach outside: nothing new from what we have been doing so far. But I guess some companies are just going to make a lot of money from a government contract.
Putting pessimism aside (!) and knowing that the longer I do this job, the more I realise just how much the Department for Education has no idea what it is doing. They are quite happy to let schools and more specifically Headteachers carry the blame for anything that goes wrong.
I am looking forward to the 21/22 academic year. Like many other Headteachers, I have survived what can openly be described as two horrendous academic years! However many good staff and good Headteachers of other schools have made the decision to leave the profession. As far as I am aware, the staff of my school have not. They have been busy running summer camps using the government ‘catch-up’ funding and running transition sessions for all newbies for the new academic year; and they are all, like me, ready for what the new year will bring!