Returning to school during a pandemic

This week we returned to school amidst a global pandemic with three days of INSET to prepare.  Our SLT have done the most incredible and amazing job in preparing for our return and our premises team have been working flat out over the summer to get our building ready. They could not have done more.

What I write here are my own personal thoughts and reflections.

I returned on Tuesday to meet with my new staff and I can’t tell you how sick I felt.  I felt so so so sick returning. The last time I had been in the building was March 5th or around that date and the sense of the unknown and how things were to be managed was great.  By the end of the day, I had got back on the bicycle and was feeling a lot calmer and happier.  A funk followed the next day.  I’m not sure what I expected re. returning to school but I had realized throughout the day that it wasn’t going to be teaching as I knew it and that the path ahead was going to be incredibly challenging.  Here are some of my key takeaways and thoughts.

Medical procedures:

Before we enter the building all staff and students have their temperature taken.  Masks are worn by everyone at all times other than eating and drinking water.  Every member of staff this week has had a blood test to test for the antibodies.  If this shows up positive, staff will be required to get a swab test and stay off until the results come back.  There are hand sanitizers everywhere. 

The school’s approach is very black and white.  If you have any of the symptoms, you stay off and get tested before a return to school. This is when I realized the academic year was definitely not going to  be the same and that schools, this year, I very much feel, are going to be revolving doors for pupils and staff.  The symptoms of Covid are not dissimilar to symptoms of flu and the like and as we head into the winter season the frequency that people will get a sore throat, a headache, a fever etc etc is going to increase.  This means we will see pupils and staff in and out of the building as these symptoms arise. How we respond and cope with this will be crucial.

Procedures.

There is a one way system in our school building with staircases designated up or down and arrows along the walk ways.  All pupils have been allocated classrooms, with year groups zoned and it is the teachers who move this year.  The only exception to this are specialist areas.  This reduces the movement and therefore the possibility for transmission.  All classrooms are set up to be socially distanced with pupils each having their own individual desks. Pupils must bring equipment and nothing is to be shared. Exits and entrances have been thoroughly planned as has the staggered lunch system. Our SLT have been so thorough with the plans for movement etc but the proof is in the pudding and you can’t know how well a system works until the system is in place and it is something we all need to physically take part in and amend as and when is necessary.

Teaching is going to be very very different.  Paper based resources and books are tricky things to utilize.  Our class texts for example have to be taken to the relevant classroom and left for 48 hours in their own form of quarantine before they can be handed out.  And they can’t be handed out.  So pupils have to collect one by one.  The more I listened to the resourcing I realized that, for me, working with google classroom was going to be the most efficient and safe way to proceed.  (At this point, I appreciate I am in a school where most of my pupils do have access to their own devices).  This was when I got a bit sad because this isn’t what I went into teaching to do.  Fundamentally, I felt like it is online teaching but in school with a teacher at the front of the classroom.  However, we have to realise and appreciate that these are not normal times and we have to do what we can to reduce the transmission and pace of this disease.  (For those, who don’t have one to one devices, which I do recognize is the majority of state secondaries, I think booklets are the best way forward which are issued once and pupils keep.) 

Blended learning is a very real thing and we have to anticipate that pupils and staff will be in and out and closures in the future are not unlikely in some capacity.  For this reason, moving most things back on line is the most time efficient and productive thing.  I spent some time this week going through online platforms with staff as well that will help us.  We have an amazing VLE where pupils can get all the novels and the text books, we use readtheory and commonlit, we have subscribed to Massolit, we use quizlet for retention and we are trying out Seneca.  During this period, although the amount of online platforms can seem overwhelming, tapping into them will help us no end.

This weekend is all about adjusting my booklet planning to something more online friendly.

So where am I headspace wise as we head into the return of our pupils?

Cases in Italy are rising. Next week we see 900 pupils return and we have over 100 staff.  It would be naïve to think that within that range of people cases of Covid are not going to appear.  I now don’t see Covid as the killer disease it was at the start and I think it is important to acknowledge that it is amongst us and people we know have had it, have it or will have it.  There should be no stigma to it and we need to treat this time with compassion, love and understanding.  Nobody wants to have the disease and nobody would knowingly want to infect others with the disease.

We have to acknowledge (and I’ve had to reflect) that the return to school is not going to be easy.  When cases are confirmed, classes, year groups, the whole school might have to re-close until it is safe to reopen.  We have to accept that there will be more cover, more duties to fill in the gaps where needed.  We will be in school and then back at home and in school and back at home until we ride this out. It will be a time more than ever when schools, staff and pupils will have to work together and support each other.

The problem we have, I feel, is that the disease has shifted a bit and there is an increase now in asymptomatic cases.  People are walking around without even knowing that they have it because they are not experiencing the symptoms.  And this is where I talk about masks.  We are wearing masks at all times.  It is currently 33 degrees.  It is not pleasureable at all.  But we do it because a. it means we can return to school.  B. research has suggested that it helps to reduce transmission by around 84-87%.  C. we have a responsibility to protect each other as far as we can. 

In fact, since being back at school I’ve been wearing a mask everywhere!  We don’t – in Italy – have to wear a mask in public spaces but given the rise in asymptomatic cases and the volume of people out and about, and the sometimes lack of social distancing that you see without masks, I feel that I have a responsibility as a teacher to do everything in my power to protect my school community.  Wearing masks here is the norm and I do watch what some people are coming out with in England and despair.  We are in the middle of a pandemic.  England is not out of that pandemic (nor is Italy) and, personally, I feel we all need to play our part.

So where does that leave me?

Am I worried? No.  Am I nervous? No.  Am I more pragmatic after a week back at school about our new reality?  Yes.  Does this make me sad?  Yes.  Is it necessary?  Yes.

The hardest thing for me currently is yearning for life before Covid and wondering when we will return to that life.  At the moment none of us have the answer.  For that reason, all we can do right now is live day to day – and this is what I think we have to promote as leaders – take each day as it comes, be kind to ourselves and each other and live with compassion and care at the heart of all that we do. It is going to be the trickest of times – tricker than lockdown and we have to be preprared for the realities of this.

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