Getting used to a new routine in Shropshire’s schools

As pupils and staff prepare for a return to classrooms after months of lessons at home on their computers, head teachers talk about the preparations that have been made.

The pandemic has turned all our lives upside down, but for school pupils, parents, and teachers the changes have been genuinely unprecedented.

On Monday pupils across the county will be returning to classrooms for the first time since last year, and a series of Shropshire schools have lifted the lid on what students can expect, how they will be helping them adjust, and get back up to speed.

When schools and colleges broke up for Christmas parents, pupils and staff were all expecting to return two weeks later, but fast forward two months and another lockdown has meant home schooling has again become the norm.

For schools welcoming pupils back on Monday there are changes – Covid testing to be carried out in makeshift centres, facemasks in classrooms, more mask wearing from teachers.

But for all headteachers the primary focus is on making sure their pupils adapt to the brave new world, and helping them to make up for what has been lost while lessons have taken place over Zoom.

Teacher Penny Brown, in a specially-marked space, and pupil Paige Branford, 15, at Sir John Talbot’s School, Whitchurch

'Mental health' has become a much-repeated phrase during the pandemic, and the issue is a serious concern for pupils adjusting to the frequent changes in education or facing old environments in new conditions.

Assistant vice principal at Charlton School, Wellington, Anna Vickers, said part of the challenge will be for pupils to "process their lockdown experiences".

She said: "As we move back into face-to-face teaching for all students, our priority is to ensure our students are happy and healthy, are in the right frame of mind to progress and achieve academically, and support them to process their lockdown experiences as they continue to build character traits that will prepare them for adulthood.

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"On return to school, students will be taking part in our ‘recovery curriculum’ which aims to identify gaps in their learning and support students to feel confident in their next steps.

"Work in form times will be centred around processing experiences from lockdown and planning for the future, enabling students to feel positive about what the future holds for them post Covid."

There is excitement from school staff about the return, with many eager to get back to face to face learning after weeks of setting work online.

Oldbury Wells School headteacher Lee Tristham

The practicalities of how that works have been explained by Sarah Godden, CEO of the TrustEd Schools Partnership, which includes Oldbury Wells and Church Stretton secondary schools, and primaries, Castlefields and St Leonard's in Bridgnorth, as well as Alveley.

She explained pupils would be used to some of the arrangements from last year, but that there would be changes.

"There are many things that will be the same in our schools, next week. These will be things that parents, and pupils will be familiar with," she said.

"For example, when pupils arrive, they will have the staggered arrival times and set places on buses. In school they will keep to the same year group or class bubbles that they are used to from last term. They will see the frequent handwashing and cleaning is still in place. Our pupils and parents have been brilliant at helping the teachers to make the bubble system work.

"There have been some changes to the guidance we have on mask wearing. However, in the schools in our trust, and in many other schools too, staff, and secondary pupils are quite used to wearing masks as they arrive at school and when moving around.

"We have been grateful that parents in all our schools wear masks too when picking up and dropping off children. All of these things help.

"There are some differences too which are designed to keep us all safe and to keep risks down.

"For example, staff will be wearing masks more than they had to before, and our secondary pupils are being asked to wear masks in classrooms now too.

"We know that this will take some getting used to and we also know that this is a rule that the government say they will review.

Change

"We guess that as we move further into spring that this may be relaxed by the government, but we will have to wait and see."

She added: "In secondary schools the single biggest change for pupils is that they can have a test when they come back into school next week – and then two further tests staggered over the next few days.

"After that, pupils can then have home testing kits. I think that many schools have mixed feelings about this because although it is good for safety it has been quite challenging to organise it all, and get staff and volunteers trained.

"However, in both Church Stretton School and Oldbury Wells School, we have set up excellent flow testing centres on our sites, which will operate for the next two weeks.

"With the help of newly trained staff and volunteers we are ready to go. We are of course very pleased to know that with so many pupils being tested before they are back in the classroom, that this will improve safety further."

Head of school at Sir John Talbot School, Tim Stonall, said that with testing being new to students, they had focused on advice and guidance around the issue, including assemblies for reassurance.

He said: "They will have specific points during the day for their testings, beginning with those who use school transport. Once they have had their first test of three they will slot back into their timetables."

He added: "The key message to the community is that we have to play our part in ensuring that transmission of the virus continues to decline."

Prepared

Rowena Kaminski, head of school at Tilstock CE Primary School said the most important part of returning to school was to ensure everyone, children and staff, felt safe and secure.

She said: "If they don't feel safe and secure it will be a barrier to learning.

"We have worked very closely with our parents so that they are on the journey with us and also with outside agencies to ensure our special education needs and our vulnerable children are best prepared for the return."

She said the first couple of weeks would be ensuring that children reconnected with their friends and got used to being back at school again.

"Some of the children will be very tired coming back into school," she said.

Mrs Kaminski said that there would be a focus on reading, writing, phonics and maths before looking at the foundation subjects such as science, RE and music.

"It will be important to reteach learning skills and the children have not been used to focusing and concentrating. We will be looking at poetry to allow children to enjoy a shorter form of writing for example. Poetry can also help their memory skills and help with their confidence by reading poetry aloud."

Telford College head Graham Guest

At Telford College, all students have this week received dates and times for their first day back on site, and will be expected to take a lateral flow Covid test before commencing classroom activities.

Foundation studies and level one students will return during the week beginning March 8, along with some level two students in practical areas.

The return of A-level students will be divided between weeks beginning March 8 and 15, but the majority of level three students will not return to college until the weeks beginning March 15 or 22.

Graham Guest, Telford College principal and chief executive, said: “The college has completed robust risk assessments to ensure that all areas are Covid secure.

“It is really important that students return to studying on site, so that they are able to achieve their qualifications. To best support the needs of students, the most vulnerable students will be invited onto site first.

"I think the time is right. I don't think bringing students back could have been done any earlier."

Supervised

Students will be directed to the test centre, which has been set up in the college sports centre and used more than 4,000 times since January. About 40 members of staff have been trained to conduct tests alongside their teaching role.

Mr Guest said: “The test will be supervised by trained staff – we've freed them up a bit and we couldn't do this without them."

It will also be mandatory for students and staff to wear a face covering in classrooms as well as around communal areas of the campus.

Tracy Leah, a health lecturer, who has been teaching at the college for 14 years, said she was excited about the return of students.

She said: "We came into this job to support people and see our students.

"It's hard to do that fully online so we cannot wait to have everyone back – it's amazing.

"I think we've all had enough of struggling now. The students want to see their friends and teachers and they want to have that in-class experience."

Adjust

Courtney Williams from Oakengates started her level three healthcare course in September but has only been on site for the last week.

The 17-year-old said: "It's so much better in college. At home it's hard to stay motivated as it's not a normal working environment."

Courtney said it had been difficult to adjust to the new Covid measures, but that they had been implemented well.

"When people go to college they usually have the chance to explore the area and meet new people, but as we're stuck in designated areas we haven't really had the opportunity to mix with other groups and make new friends.

"But I think the college has done really well with making the measures easy to follow and effective."

Courtney's first Covid test will take place on March 22 when she joins the rest of her class for the first time since September.

She said she was nervous, but that it was "something we just have to get used to".

Mike Needham, director of comms and admissions and marketing at Shrewsbury College's English Bridge Campus

Shrewsbury College says face-to-face learning will resume on March 22, with a phased return of students from March 8, allowing for Covid testing to take place.

James Staniforth, principal of Shrewsbury Colleges Group said: "We’re pleased that the Government have given colleges the discretion to phase the return of students to campus. This autonomy will allow us to bring back students to face-to-face learning in a safe and secure way.

"We believe that the managed approach that we’re taking is clear, easy to understand as well as implement and will offer reassurance to students, parents/carers and staff. This process will solve the logistical challenges of trying to test, teach and provide support functions as well as avoiding the anxiety of students sitting in classes awaiting Covid-19 test results."

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