Two School years: Part 2 – A Brave New World

Photo Aaron Burden from Unsplash

As the first lockdown began, schools were faced with unprecedented education and safety challenges. In this second article, a Midlands junior school headteacher describes what happened to ensure school staff and pupils responded.

On Monday 23rd March, we started our new systems! Staff agreed to provide on-site education for eligible children from 7.30am until 5.30pm every week day throughout the Spring and Summer Terms, the half term holidays and the Easter holidays. Teachers created daily Maths and English lessons using PowerPoint, which were put onto our school website. All children had been sent home with an exercise book and a pencil, so they could do their work in it. All staff were on a rota, with one Teacher and one teaching assistant (TA) at school every day, depending on whether the staff worked full time or part time. I was expected to be on site on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with the Deputy on site on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so that  if either of us became ill, the other would then take over the relevant on site days.

Those children eligible to be in school, worked at spaced out tables in the hall. They were given their own laptop and headphones and accessed the exact same powerpoints on the school website, their ‘at-home’ peers were using. Surprisingly quickly, the new routines became the norm. Mondays were spent checking all was ok for the forthcoming week. Tuesdays were when the next digital booking forms were sent out by the Deputy. Wednesdays were when I got in contact with the more vulnerable families and checked they were ok. Thursdays were the deadline for booking, so the Deputy then created the registers for the following week and checked we had adequate staff to cover. Fridays were spent collating the H&S tick sheets, checking we had enough cleaning and PPE supplies  and getting everything ready for the following week.

The Deputy and I developed a system to keep in touch with each other, seeing as we were not in the building at the same time. As the weeks went by, much of my time was also spent supporting staff. They were beginning to feel the pressure of working in this new way, trying to create meaningful learning activities simply using PowerPoint, missing the human contact of being one big team in the Staffroom and some were beginning to worry about their safety. Staff also realised that ‘time’ was becoming an arbitrary concept as al the norms of school life – assemblies, break times, lessons – were no more.

Feeling the heat

For myself, the pressure simply increased each week the lockdown continued – the government guidance was incessant, the pressure from teaching unions intense and the constant hype on media and social media was at fever pitch. It seemed that everyone was entitled to an opinion. The press had a field day making comments about how teachers were ‘on holiday’ and doing nothing! I have no doubts that some schools may well have not been as proactive as we were, but it still hurt nonetheless, to have one’s profession bashed and battered by the press and social media on a daily basis. And there were many, many loose ends to sort out.

As far as parents were aware, it had been a fairly seamless and easy transition to the dual systems of education on and off site; but it is not easy to just ‘shut a school’! As we had not been sure how long the new situation would last, children had left all their books and many personal belongings in their classrooms. The longer the lockdown went on, the more apparent it became that all of this would need giving back. There was still clothing hanging on pegs in various parts of the school.  A school trip arranged for the Spring Term had obviously been cancelled, so all who had paid needed reimbursing, as did those who had paid online for school meals during the Spring Term. After many weeks of hoping, it became apparent that the usual Year 6 residential visit would not be going ahead and so these parents needed reimbursing too. All of this became quite a logistical nightmare for the Business Manager who had to ensure the paper trail was exact for any future audit examination. When a new Administrator started at the school, one of the huge jobs to be done was organising the collection of all personal belongings and the reimbursements of money. This had to be done over many weeks to ensure social distancing – with bags and bags of personal items stored in school and a multitude of envelopes of money and subsequent receipts kept safe.

Then there was the issue of food for the children entitled to Free School Meals. This was not fully set up until the second week of the lockdown because I had tried several times unsuccessfully to use the newly created Government system and had been given mixed messages from the local authority who had first said I could use any system, then said I had to use the Government system, before finally saying I could use any. Very frustrating! In the end we used Co-op vouchers, as it was a much-used shop in the village which I hand delivered to relevant families. This system worked well for parents, but added to my stress as we had to try and guess how long the lockdown would go on for, to be certain we only gave out the right amount each time.

Guidance? What guidance?

The government guidance came thick and fast – at one point I think someone counted 90-something separate documents over a period of a week! Each document had to be read in depth, to try and understand what had changed since the last one. Often it was just a slight re-wording of a sentence! All of it was suitably ‘grey’ meaning sentences and indeed whole paragraphs could be read and understood differently by different people. A new daily online register system was started by the government, which got steadily more complex and more time consuming to complete each day by a specified time. Schools were asked to write a risk assessment to detail what they were doing to keep everyone safe. No guidance was given as to what should be in this document; indeed, it was conveniently worded that ‘it was down to individual schools to write their own unique document’, but that schools would be held to account for the content. Teaching Unions were extremely vocal about these. Many wrote extremely strongly worded emails to Headteachers demanding to see their risk assessments, making it very clear that they would take action against Headteachers who were putting their staff in danger. I endeavoured to keep up with the steady torrent of Government guidance and write a risk assessment I thought covered everything.

During the lockdown the school continued with previously planned (and some unplanned) developments. Two new TAs started as did a new Administrator. Our IT providers installed Microsoft Teams for myself and the Administrator, with plans made for a whole school move over during the 2019/2020 Summer holidays. The Computing Subject Leader and I attended online training about Microsoft Teams, and we agreed all staff, children and parents were to be trained in its usage for the 20/21 academic year. There were also various tasks which needed completing, as it became evident that Ofsted were going to be holding schools to account not only for the standards of education they were providing during this period of time, but also that once inspections were reinstated they would be expecting to see that schools had continued to make major developments to their curricular as per their stipulations pre-covid.

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Fitting the pieces together

When the government announced that the criteria for eligibility of on-site education would change, we noticed a dramatic increase in the numbers of parents now expecting a space in school. As Year 6 children were now expected to return to school, we had to work out how this would work safely. It became apparent that we could only accommodate approximately 8 children spaced 2m apart in each classroom. With a cohort of 45 children in Year 6 and only 6 classrooms in use, stress levels began to rise! I attended online meetings with representatives from the Local Authority and other Headteachers, an idea which seemed initially useful. However at a meeting where Headteachers were trying to ascertain to what extent the ‘2m social distancing’ had to be strictly adhered to, the local authority representatives laughed as they listened to us – they found it amusing that everyone was unsure about the wording in the government guidance. I did not attend any more such online meetings, instead working with fellow Headteachers as we all tried to wade our way through the government guidance and try to make it work for the individual nuances of individual schools.

The Deputy and I amended all relevant risk assessments, rotas and procedures in order to accommodate the increase in pupil numbers. By the last week of ‘Lockdown 1’ we were struggling. The numbers of parents wanting spaces meant we were on the very edge of what could safely be accommodated if we were supposed to keep social distancing.

Besides my weekly phone calls to vulnerable families,  I phoned every single family in the school twice during the whole of ‘Lockdown 1 to see how everyone was doing. It was heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time. Parents were so grateful for everything the school was doing, but the stress and fear could be heard in their voices. Often I would simply sit and listen as they bared all. Some cried, some asked for help, many asked me when it would end. There was nothing I could do except listen. The numbers of families in crisis began to creep up. More became eligible for free school meals and sadly, there was an increase in the number of domestic violence notifications that I received from the police. Stress levels rose further as it became apparent what the cost of PPE and extra cleaning materials was having on already stretched school budgets! The government said they would be reimbursing schools, however, the worry as always was whether this would actually occur or whether it would simply be taken from elsewhere – robbing Peter to pay Paul as is their usual way.

Back to the beginning?

Then the end of the academic year began to loom. We did manage to hold a socially distanced event for our Year 6 pupils and organise socially distanced transition visits for all new children and parents to visit the school, in preparation for the 20/21 academic year.  However, the preparation for the 20/21 school year was extremely stressful! The government may have given all schools plenty of notice, but the guidance came thick and fast, the restrictions by which schools had to operate were a minefield, the teaching unions ramped up their pressure and the media hype on social media was intense as everyone gave their opinions as to how school should be run in order to keep everyone safe. Once again the Deputy and I rolled up our sleeves and asked the staff to trust us.

Worrying that we had thought of everything and had not missed something which would put someone in danger was becoming tiring. I attended online webinars about Lateral Flow Testing of staff, wrote relevant documentation for staff, created relevant registers, ordered kits and trained staff. I created a brand new and highly detailed risk assessment for the school. I created with new policies and procedures for staff. The Deputy worked out two whole new timetables so that there were six separate class bubbles – two different start and end times to the school day, staggered breaks and lunches and staffing logistics to ensure that six classes would be kept separate at all times. We worked out new arrangements for returning to serving hot school meals. It meant more staff had to be employed . We organised systems for safe movement around the school and a new code of conduct for all pupils. We re-arranged staffing and employed extra staff to ensure that we could meet all the government guidelines on safe cleaning. We sourced extra soap, paper towels, PPE and cleaning materials and worked out our procedure if there was a positive covid case in school. New equipment was bought.

Some staff organised playground equipment for each class, as it couldn’t be shared and how to use PE equipment as government guidance stipulated how long it had to be left before other children could use it, depending on what the object was made out of.

Some staff created resources which could be used to support children and families when school restarted, as we were unsure how the children’s mental health and wellbeing would have been affected. I attended various online courses regarding mental health and tried to make sense of the government guidance about who needed to self-isolate and when. I attended online meetings with the Headteacher of both the local Infant and Secondary Schools to ensure our start/end times would work. I liaised with our food providers to get food parcels to any families who were entitled to Free School Meals, should they be asked to self-isolate due to covid. A highly detailed document was sent out to all parents. If I recall correctly, it took us two weeks from start to finish, to create everything – we worked quickly but efficiently, whilst simultaneously trying to adhere to government guidance.

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