How schools have 'moved mountains' to get children back into class

In preparation for Years 7-11 returning safely to Doncaster secondary school Outwood Academy Adwick this September, staff have been ‘moving mountains’.

For the first time since March, all 1,000 of its 11- to 16-year-olds are expected back next week, and one senior leader who can barely wait is head of English Laura Vance.

‘Words can’t describe how excited I am,’ she says. ‘We’ve missed the children so much! For some of our more deprived students, seeing staff waving good morning at the school gates might be the first smiling face of the day – the first thing anyone’s said. School isn’t just about academia; we’re building humans.’

Aside from getting learning back on track, the return to school will bring some routine and normality to students’ lives, as Laura explains.

‘The children have been away from education for months now, which has led to loneliness, anxiety and isolation – all crippling issues that will be reviewed on an ongoing basis. It’s crucial that our students come back now, and we’ve moved mountains to get it right.’

The school will reopen on Wednesday with a special day dedicated to Year 7 pupils, who have missed vital support in their transition from primary school. For existing students, the school day and grounds may look a little different to when they left in March.

‘Starting this term, our doors will always be open, reducing touch points throughout the school and helping us follow distance markers in the corridors. In our new model, students will be assigned to a classroom bubble of around 30. Here, they will have their own desk with a pencil case provided full of stationery to avoid them borrowing or taking equipment home.

‘For lessons, our teachers will rotate into different classrooms, which are laid out for distancing. Between changeovers, engaging tasks will actively hook students into their next lesson.’


Student hygiene is also of paramount importance, with new outdoor basins to encourage regular hand washing. Plus, additional cleaning staff will routinely deep clean the school. To reassure children and parents about the changes, academy staff have worked tirelessly to regularly update their website and social channels.

‘To assess any concerns, we’ve strived to phone every household,’ says Laura. ‘Particularly within the BAME community, we have spoken to many concerned parents who want to shield their students for longer, but they should know we are taking every precaution to safeguard their children.

‘Our bubbles will help enforce the test and trace system and stop the spread efficiently. If we did need to quarantine a subsection of the school, we have a ready-made online curriculum, which is a short-term solution. Ultimately, there is no replacement for school life.’

This September marks an exciting time for 11-year-old Lily Rushforth, who transitions from primary school to high school in Barnsley, South Yorkshire.

She says: ‘I’m not nervous about the virus at all – I’m just excited to start my new school, make new friends and have teachers around to help with my favourite subjects.’

Lily’s mother Clare, 41 – who has worked throughout lockdown as a dental practice manager – says remote learning at Outwood Primary Academy Littleworth Grange has been ‘amazing’, although Lily has missed the social side of school.

‘It’s important for Lily to get back to routines and spending time with children her own age,’ says Clare. ‘That’s a big part of starting high school: meeting people and having new experiences.’

Lily will start at Outwood Academy Shafton next week, and the school’s efforts for a smooth transition for new and returning students has already impressed parents like Clare.

‘For a large school, it has done an amazing job of controlling the situation and reassuring parents that it’s safe for children to go back in September,’ says Clare.

‘Starting high school is a scary experience, but I think that communication has helped Lily to feel excited about this next step.’

For students starting or returning to further education this term, teaching may be a little different to what they’re used to.

However, support for the adjustment will be close at hand, says college principal Dr Paul Phillips CBE, 62, who has been at Weston College of Further and Higher Education in Somerset for 20 years. ‘Students will be coming back to a disciplined and supportive environment, where mental health and wellbeing are as much a priority as physical safety,’ he says.

‘The more face-to-face tuition our learners get, the better it is for their wellbeing, social development and focus on their programmes of study. The environment will have changed for everyone, but for our new learners especially, coming in at age 16, starting college as soon as possible will be hugely important for adjustment.’

Each campus has been completely redesigned since Covid-19, with input from parents, governors and health and safety officials.

There is now one main entrance and a one-way system throughout, plus regular hand-sanitisation stations to encourage good hygiene.

Sophisticated barrier systems will also track entry and exit to trace learners who have been on the same campus at any given time.

To support learning, huge investments have been made in mentorship and one-to-one style teaching, as well as increasing the number of mental health advisors and support workers available on site. Now, all that’s left to do is welcome the students back.

Dr Phillips says, ‘The future is extremely bright for our further education students. There has been a real sense of ambition, perseverance and entrepreneurship throughout lockdown, and we’re ready to channel that into careers for our students. We’re going for gold this term – and raring to go!’

Experts say the benefits of returning to school go far beyond academic success. Family therapist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, says: ‘It’s very positive to get children back in school, both for their social development and mental health.

‘Children of all ages need face-to-face and non-verbal communication with peers, not to mention the benefits of movement and fresh air.

‘I believe they will catch up quickly and settle back in well. Children are more resilient than we think.’

kalanitbenari.com

Last week, Professor Chris Whitty said that children faced greater danger from missing school than they did from Covid-19. We spoke to Dr Tim Ubhi, clinical director and consultant paediatrician at the Children’s e-Hospital, about the health risks to children.

He says, ‘Going back to school is safe for children. They are at a very low risk of Covid-19 compared to adults, and rarely develop any significant symptoms.

‘There is no data to suggest that children from minority ethnic groups are more at risk, and the advice is the same for everyone: be sensible, encourage good hygiene and if a child develops symptoms, keep them home.’

◼ e-hospital.co.uk

Getting to school safely

To ease the pressure on public transport networks, why not find other ways to travel to school this September?

Get walking

If getting to school on foot is an option, it makes a carefree alternative to stuffy buses,
tubes and trains. Not only is it good for your physical health, but the fresh air and exercise will do wonders for your mind.

Grab your bike

If you hop on the bus for just a few stops, consider travelling to school on two wheels. It’s a fast, efficient and low-cost solution for burning off any excess energy after lessons.

Scoot on

Make travel fun again and walk the push-scooters to the school gates, so that little ones can get some fresh air on the way home.

◼ If you must travel by public transport, always wear a mask (children aged 11 and over are also required to wear a mask), travel off-peak, and wash your hands regularly. For further guidance, visit gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-safer-travel-guidance-for-passengers.

◼ This is UK Government information for readers in England only. Check with your local authority for the latest news on schools opening in your area.

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