The Week Junior: Ideas & tips for Returning to school during COVID-19
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For most children, the start of a new school year is a mixed bag of excitement and nerves. But with the background anxiety of a global pandemic and ongoing lockdown restrictions, returning to school in 2020 feels a lot more challenging.
Coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown has thrown our lives up in the air. Closed schools and limited contact with friends and family mean parents have had to become teachers, entertainers and counsellors. Children’s education has not only depended on what schools can provide remotely and individual learning needs, but also the time, resources and teaching skills of their parents.
While many will be relieved and excited to be back inside a classroom, some families may worry about catching up on lost learning, and the impact returning to school will have on children’s physical and mental health.
“A certain amount of anxiety is completely normal,” says Dr Cyra Neave, a Senior Clinician in the Schools Outreach Team at the Anna Freud Centre. “For some children, a return to school after such a long break will bring up a lot of worries. I would encourage parents to normalise, listen to and acknowledge their child’s worries, alongside helping them to prepare for the return.”
So how can parents prepare children for the new school year, and support their return to the classroom?
Safety in schools The government has made it clear that all UK children need to be back at school this September. Detailed school guidelines list safety measures like hand-washing stations, grouping pupils into ‘bubbles’ where possible, and staggered start and finish times. Along with the NHS Test and Trace system, which works at a local level to help keep the spread of Covid-19 under control, these measures will create a safer school environment for pupils and staff.
Despite this, children and parents may still worry that increased contact with others means an increased risk of catching Covid-19 and passing it on to loved ones like grandparents. YoungMinds recommends talking to your child about practical ways to stay safe at school, such as washing their hands before and after eating.
You can also plan the school run. Walking, cycling or driving is safer than public transport, but if this isn’t possible then talk about reducing risk on buses and trains. For example, respecting other people’s space, and avoiding touching their own face or eating snacks.
Clear communications Your school should communicate clearly how classes will work in the new school year but don’t be afraid to ask questions if you’re unsure. Many schools will also share videos and photos of the new classrooms and playgrounds to reduce any confusion and anxiety. Take time to go through this with your child, and reassure them that their school is doing its best to keep everyone safe.
“Throughout the holidays, school management teams, site staff and teachers are preparing for the new term and the return to classroom-based learning,” says Beth, a primary school teacher in Surrey. “As parents, we need to trust our schools and teachers to keep our children as safe as possible. As a teacher, I do not want to get ill, nor do I want to see a return to remote learning.”
Busy spaces Most pupils will adapt quickly to the new school routine. However, some children will feel anxious about returning to a busy space, especially if they’ve had limited contact with the outside world because a family member has been shielding, or if they’re starting a new school.
“Talk them through how the school might be a bit different when they return,” says Dr Neave, “and explain that these changes are there to keep them safe. It is okay not to have all the answers, and modelling how to manage feelings of uncertainty will be really helpful for children and young people during this time.”
Social media has kept us connected during the lockdown, but an endless feed of Covid-19 news and opinions can also fuel fear. Try and limit your child’s screen time (yours too, if it helps) and instead talk openly about what’s happening, giving honest answers to questions. Use words and explanations your child can understand, and suggest actions they can take to help keep everyone safe, like not sharing pens or pencils.
It’s natural for parents to feel worried too, and Dr Neave says we need to recognise our own anxieties. “Finding ways of looking after yourself, and helping yourself to manage your own worries, will play a key role in helping to support your child.”
The impact of lockdown on education is a huge concern for many parents and pupils. Children who were home-schooled during lockdown haven’t had – for all kinds of reasons – the same level of teaching they receive in school. This has particularly affected children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may also have missed the emotional support and structure that schools can provide.
Teachers will be working hard to help pupils catch up. “We’re all aware we’ll be working with pupils who worked consistently throughout the term, alongside those who struggled to do anything at all,” says Clare, a secondary school teacher in Lancashire. “So we’re looking at how we can provide catch-up opportunities for students that need it, as well as building effective home learning resources in case pupils need to isolate, or the school has to lockdown.”
The government’s National Tutoring Programme will also help schools address the impact of school closures, by funding additional support for children who have missed out the most. If you’re particularly worried about your child’s learning during the lockdown, ask your school what extra help they can provide.
Parents can help children prepare for lessons by establishing term-time routines. Being off school for months may mean normal bedtimes have gone out the window, so reset healthy sleeping patterns. If picking up a pen is a strange experience, encourage your child to write a story, draw a picture, or do word or number games to get their brains back in gear.
Looking forward The campaign group Sept for Schools has recorded 1,700 parents’ home-schooling experiences and firmly believes children need to go back. “The best place for most children is in the classroom,” it says. “School provides so many things: structure and routine, social interaction, a stimulating learning environment, consistency and it often promotes good health and wellbeing.”
Nothing is zero risk, and sending our children to school in these strange times is a worry for us all. But children are generally very resilient, and with effective safety measures and good communication in place, we need to trust it’s a risk worth taking. It’s important to help children develop hope and a sense of excitement for the future. The current situation won’t last forever, and any scared or anxious feelings children have can change.
Try and normalise the idea of going back to school. Focus on the positives like seeing old friends and learning new things.
Practice familiar school routines, including earlier bedtimes and fixed mealtimes.
Establish good hand washing and social distancing habits.
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