Headteacher says the exercise has been ‘really difficult’ and ‘a challenge’
Chester Blue Coat CE Primary School has an action plan to keep everyone safe ready for when it begins to accept more pupils – now postponed until later in the month.
The Walpole Street school had been due to reopen on Monday (June 8) along with many other schools in Cheshire West.
But the local education authority highlighted concerns as the reproductive rate of the virus is still above one in the North West so Chester Blue Coat is now looking at June 22 as the earliest possible return date.
Over the past few weeks the school has only been open to children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters since closing to the majority on March 20.
Now the task is to upscale the operation in a phased return as they will soon be joined by children from Year 6 (aged 10-11), shortly followed shortly by Year 1 (aged 5-6) and finally by reception (aged 4-5).
However, the pupils will be returning to an alien environment.
For a start, only about 30% of each year group have expressed interest in going back while the remaining 70% are likely to continue online learning from home – either because their parents are nervous or there is a practical reason such as having another child in a year group that can’t yet return.
Classrooms that normally hold 30 will only accommodate 10 or 11 and one teacher to ensure safe social distancing – with each desk spaced 2 metres from the next.
Friends will be split, pupils may be taught by someone new and in a different classroom to normal.
Children will be expected to remain in this 10-strong ‘bubble’ at all times whether indoors or perhaps playing or learning in the bubble’s own dedicated outdoor space.
Reading books are out of bounds as they can harbour the virus. Laptops and iPads can be used and will be wiped after use.
Children must stick to using their own equipment such as pens and rulers and will bring in a packed lunch and water bottle which they can consume at their desk.
There are markings on the stairs and corridors reminding children to stay apart although these have been kept to a minimum. Some toilets and hand basins are cordoned off to ensure safe social distancing. Hand dryers are disconnected as they spread moisture from the hands into the air.
Windows and doors will be kept open to ensure a constant flow of fresh air.
At playtime there can be no sharing or touching so tag is out, football is out, rounders is out. Basketball can be played but only by one child on their own.
Despite all these efforts, headteacher Vince O’Brien believes getting younger children to stay apart is an impossible task although it may be manageable with Year 6.
He said: “I’m about to retire after 36 years in teaching and this is singularly the most unusual challenge I have had to deal with in that time. And the key issue for me is we are now being asked to use school for a function it was never designed for.
“Schools are places where children are part of a community and we encourage children to work together in pairs and in a groups. We encourage them to socialise with children of different ages and different cultures. And the playground is a place where we want children to work together and suddenly we’re being told to separate, move apart and it’s a real challenge – changing and repurposing the building for this new regime.
“And I’ve found that really difficult and it has been a challenge.”
He is candid that trying to accommodate all the other year groups won’t work because of the sheer amount of physical space that is now needed.
“The Government talk about letting years two to five in, it’s just not possible. We just haven’t got the space for it. And we’re a big modern school not a poky Victorian school.”
Chester Blue Coat receives about a third of its intake from the surrounding Garden Quarter, about a third from Blacon and about a third are the children of workers at the university, Shell, MBNA and other big companies, including people from overseas.
Blue Coat, rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted, is also a School of Sanctuary, committed to being a safe and welcoming place for all, especially those seeking sanctuary such as refugees, asylum seekers or from domestic violence situations.
Approximately 50% of the children do not speak English as their first language.
Ensuring integration in the new environment for all these youngsters – as well as Special Needs children normally requiring one-to-one support – is going to be a ‘unique challenge’ , says Mr O’Brien.
Aside from physical changes in the school layout, there will be the ever present risk that a child or member of staff falls ill with coronavirus. This is the idea behind dividing the school into bubbles so any outbreak is confined to that cohort. At the first sign of symptoms, everyone in the bubble will be asked to self-isolate and cannot return until, hopefully, the test result comes back negative.
Staff will have access to PPE such as gloves, an apron and visors in case they have to administer first aid or a child soils themselves. But in general they must keep their distance which rules out helping a pupil over their shoulder, making teaching very difficult. It also poses problems if a child is upset and would normally receive an arm around the shoulder.
The number of staff in the building is being kept to a minimum because evidence suggests children are rarely seriously ill with the virus but can spread it to adults who are more likely to be poorly, especially if they are older or have underlying medical conditions.
Teachers and administrators in the ‘at risk’ categories will continue to stay away from school and instead work remotely from home.
Is Mr O’Brien concerned this generation of learners will be impacted?
“Most children are very resilient but there will be children who will be affected by this and that’s our key job. Our key job on their return is how can we deal with our children’s mental health and wellbeing? What activities can we do to reassure them, talk them through what they’ve been through.”
In the wake of the pandemic, staff have even received training in bereavement and mental health and wellbeing aimed at children.
Mr O’Brien added: “I think it will define this generation, those who have missed exams, those at universities who have been unable to complete dissertations.”
And he feels sorry for his Year 6 leavers who won’t get the send-off they deserve as they prepare to move on to secondary education.
Mr O’Brien, whose replacement will be Matt Hover from Ashton Hayes Primary School, has some empathy about this unsatisfactory conclusion being a leaver himself.
So should children in England be returning later as they are in Wales and Scotland? Is the Government right?
“They tell us they are. There’s a definite lack of trust in what the Government has done – the way they’ve handled things, second highest number of deaths in the world.”
He continued: “I think it depends what their motivation is. If the motivation is to get people back to work, you can see that is fraught with problems. If it’s to provide children with the education that they’re missing – well, that will happen in part but not in any way that the children will recognise.
“If there’s another purpose, I don’t know what that might be – socialisation, getting children out of domestic violence and things, and the Government keep pushing that agenda about children who are vulnerable facing domestic violence. If that’s the case, let’s get all those kids back. Let’s just do that and we could do that.”
Source: Cheshire Live