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Returning to school: your questions answered

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From this week, schools across the UK have reopened for all students. But this won’t be school as they know it.

As quickly as they were thrust into the isolation of lockdown, suddenly students will be dealing with new school rules, routines and expectations.

For many, these changes will inevitably create anxiety, especially given the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and the talk of further lockdowns.

The government has issued the following guidelines, for schools, but to make the return to school a little easier for you, here is our guide to what to expect.

Is the return to school compulsory?

Yes – the government has said that all students are expected to return for the new term, even if they have previously been shielding.

In theory, parents can be fined for keeping their children at home, but headteachers have said they will try to work with parents and support them in getting kids back to school. Everyone understands that there are many valid concerns about safety and social distancing. 

What about travelling to school?

The government wants children to walk, cycle or be driven to school, rather than use public transport, if they can.

Parents will be expected to stay beyond the school gates when picking up and dropping off and make an appointment if they need to meet staff.

Ideally, students on school buses would be kept in separate groups and socially distanced. But, in reality, this is hard to do. So, students should expect to wear face masks (except those under 11) and use hand sanitiser.

How does social distancing work in school?

Moving between classrooms and along corridors in a packed school, where space is often at a premium and class sizes might be 30, makes the one-metre rule very hard to enforce. Instead, the focus is on ‘minimising contact points’.

The suggested way of doing this is by grouping primary pupils by class and secondary students by year. This means that they will be kept separate from other classes or year groups for lessons, break times and any other activities.

There will be no big group events, such as assemblies, and teachers will need to stay at the front of the class to socially distance from the students.

How will the school day be different? 

To keep students in their group ‘bubble’, it’s likely there will be a staggered start to the day and varying times for break and lunch. Lessons and breaks could be longer or shorter; the school day could start later or finish earlier.  

What else will be different? 

Desks will be spaced out as much as possible and will face forwards. Windows and doors may be left open to increase the ventilation.

Certain sport and music activities such as contact sports, indoor aerobic activities, choirs and orchestras will be restricted. This means they may not happen at all, or there may be smaller groups or they may be held outside.

Water fountains will be off limits. All pupils should have their own water bottle and check to see whether they need to bring a packed lunch.

Arrangements for the use of lockers, toilets, cloakrooms and other communal spaces such as canteens are likely to be different from usual.

Students might be asked, for example, to use these facilities at specific times only and within their group. Or they might be asked to come into school wearing PE kit on the appropriate days, to avoid using communal cloakrooms. (Schools have been advised to stick to their usual policy on school uniform.)

What are the hygiene arrangements?

Students can expect to see a lot more cleaning going on during the school day, either by cleaning staff or teachers armed with anti-viral sprays.

They will be expected to wash or sanitise their hands regularly and follow the ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ advice when it comes to coughing and sneezing, to stop the spread of germs and viruses.

The government has now changed its guidance on the use of face coverings in schools. Secondary students attending school in areas of England under local lockdown will now have to wear face coverings in corridors. Headteachers will also be able to recommend that they are worn elsewhere, if social distancing is not possible.

It is not expected that children in any area will be required to wear them in the classroom – and primary pupils will not be asked to wear them. However, those who’ve had to wear them on the way to school will be reminded how to remove masks and wash their hands on arrival. 

All tissues and disposable masks will have to be put in sealed bins, while washable masks should be carefully removed and kept in a bag to take home.

Sharing of equipment will be discouraged wherever possible, so older children are likely to need their own pencil case and calculator, for example. 

What happens if a student develops coronavirus symptoms?

Obviously, anyone with Covid symptoms should stay at home, self-isolate for at least 10 days and arrange to have a test. But if symptoms develop at school, students will need to be taken home immediately and tested.

Schools will be provided with testing kits to give to parents. If a pupil tests positive, schools will have to send home other pupils who have been in ‘close contact’, which includes those within one to two metres for more than 15 minutes.

 If there are two confirmed cases within 14 days, or a rise in absences because of Covid-like symptoms, this could be counted as an outbreak – meaning all the students in that group, or even the whole school, may have to be sent home.

A mobile testing unit could be sent to a school with an outbreak, to carry out tests to see whether an infection had spread within a class, a year group or the whole school.

In the event of a local outbreak, health protection teams or local authorities may advise schools to close. The government has said, however, that whole-school closures “will not generally be necessary”.

How will students cope after such a long break?

Inevitably, it’s going to be a difficult period of readjustment – not just to a full school day but also to a rather different environment from the one they left in March.

Apart from those primary children who returned in June, pupils are likely to have forgotten the various routines and expectations of behaviour and learning.

Schools will be teaching the full curriculum for all year groups and GCSE and A level students are not expected to drop any of their chosen subjects.

However, there will undoubtedly be gaps in children’s knowledge, whatever their age, and schools will be trying, particularly in the first term, to catch up and revise work missed or not fully understood.

Year 7 pupils, particularly, are expected to have to cover a lot of the work they missed in their final year at primary school.

The government has allocated funding to every school to support the catch-up system and there is also a National Tutoring Programme for the most disadvantaged students. 

How can I help my child cope with the return to school?

We’ve compiled a list of tips for parents to help their primary-age child readjust to school after so long away, and a version for the parents of secondary-age children.

Both include advice on how to talk to your child about the return and how to help them manage their emotions during what may be a tricky time for them, plus practical suggestions for how you can prepare them for their first day back. 

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