Covid-19: Worries persist for parents and teachers as students return to schools

Schools reopen their doors to students after months of online learning
Illustration: Esmae Palmer

By Fenella Breaks and Monet Olrod

Students are set to return to schools across the Eastlondonlines boroughs from Monday, after almost two months of home learning for most, despite concerns from parents and teachers unions.

While enforcing their own precautions to ensure the safety of students and staff, schools are also strictly adhering to local and national rules. Precautions include staggered arrival and pick-up times, face masks mandatory for parents and older students and on-site testing.

Most primary schools will return in full on Monday. Secondary schools across London will stagger the return and have been told they must provide on-site testing for all students to avoid a repeat of the re-opening last September, which led to a rise in cases.

Schools are also adopting different routines. Clara Grant Primary, in Bromley By Bow, Tower Hamlets, has adopted a one in one out system to prevent crowding, for students to then be collected from outside by their teachers. The primary school has made it mandatory that parents wear masks when on school premises. They also advise parents who need to speak to teachers to email them and not talk within the school site when collecting or dropping off children

In South Croydon, Howard Primary School, are promoting a ‘catch it- kill it’ phrase to encourage students to keep washing their hands in a bid to keep their school virus free. They have also asked parents to play an active role in protecting their children and teachers by requesting them to provide their children with tissues to ‘catch’ the germs.

Hackney New School, a secondary school in Dalston, has provided a form for parents to sign if they want their children to receive a COVID-19 test once they arrive on the school site.

Tower Hamlets council said: “Testing is voluntary but strongly encouraged. By testing people, we can uncover infection with no symptoms, helping us to find positive cases of the infection quickly and break the chain of transmission.” Hackney, Lewisham and Croydon Councils did not respond to requests for information on their re-opening plans.

Students and parents remain worried

Laila Brick, 17, from Forest Hill, a student at Sydenham and Forest Hill Sixth Form College in Lewisham has been learning from her room for the majority of her Sixth Form experience and has reservations about returning to school. She said: “It seems like it’s very possible for a repeat of the last lockdown where cases rise as soon as we all go back and that is very anxiety inducing.” When asked if she would prefer to carry on learning remotely, Laila said: “I will benefit more from in person learning however in terms of safety I’d be happy for online learning to continue.”

Laila’s mother, Claire Brick, 53, said: “I would have preferred to wait another month or few weeks, I would have preferred England to take the same initiative as Scotland and Wales in the process of staggering pupils.” When asked if she would send her child back if given the choice she said: “No I wouldn’t send her back yet, I would be waiting for cases to drop.”

Boris Johnson at Sedgehill School, in Lewisham, last month, where a gym has been turned into a testing centre for students. Pic: PA

Many teachers remain concerned about the risks to which they are exposed. Roger Sutcliffe, a sixth-form photography teacher, who asked for his school not to be named,  said that he was worried that despite precautions taken by the Government and schools, students and teachers will not be safe. He said: “Despite assurance from the Government and local school management, social distancing in schools is literally impossible.”

Sutcliffe, who has taught for thirteen years told ELL: “ I think it will be highly disruptive to have more ‘on again, off again’ periods of remote learning. Children need stability, parents need to plan their working arrangements.”

Many teachers and union leaders have protested against the decision to reopen all schools as they feel this will put both the staff and students in danger could lead to a renewed spike in cases. Union have called for a phased return.

Speaking to the Guardian, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We fear that England’s less cautious approach runs the risk of increasing the rate of infection and prolonging the damaging cycle of stop-start schooling,” he said.

Sutcliffe added: “I agree with the unions. In fact, I would go further and say that it would have been better to wait until after the Easter break – three weeks away – and then begin a phased return. This would allow another five weeks for the vaccine to have its predicted effect at reducing the ‘R’ rate.”

“I personally know of staff who are extremely stressed as it is; a return to remote learning again would possibly tip them over the edge. I predict a great many ‘early retirements’ and resignations in the coming months and years”

‘Jessica’, a Croydon art teacher, who asked ELL not to use her real name, is keen to get back to teaching so she can focus on her specialised subject, since online learning she has had to teach a range of subjects. She told ELL: “One part of me obviously wants life to get back to normal and start having normality in our lives, at the moment I am teaching all year groups all subjects…I am an art teacher but have been teaching Maths English, French, a bit of everything.”

Jessica who teaches at a middle-school agreed with the proposal of a phased return. She said: “I don’t see how we can suddenly go back to normal and have all the children in, especially with the new variant- I don’t know where we stand with that. I think if key stage 2 came in first so year 5 and 6, then key stage 3 later on- phase them in… We are a jam-packed school and so I don’t know if it is the best idea to be honest.”

Do you think students should have returned? comment below your thoughts, or tag us at @eastlondonlines

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