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Head: "Primary schools have returned too early" Parents express mixed views about school return

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No singing, no playing on the climbing frames, no reading the library books – school is a very different experience for the pupils returning this week for the first time since lockdown began.

About two-thirds of primary schools in Cambridgeshire reopened on Monday to children in reception, Year 1 and Year 6.

But one Cambridge headteacher warned this week the decision by the government to send schools back had been “rushed” and could cause another spike in the coronavirus.

With the government indicating other primary pupils could return later this month, another city headteacher said there simply were not enough classrooms or staff to welcome them all back to her school before the summer.

Meanwhile, parents were divided about whether it was safe to send children back at all.

At Shirley Primary School, where children are returning on June 8, headteacher John Cattermole told the Cambridge Independent: “We did a survey for parents telling them what school would be like. About half said they wanted their children to come back, but we also got a sense that they didn’t want us to rush things because of fairly high levels of parental anxiety.

John Cattermole, head teacher at Shirley Primary School and a Waterbeach resident, photo by Alex Spencer. (36227215)
John Cattermole, head teacher at Shirley Primary School and a Waterbeach resident, photo by Alex Spencer. (36227215)

“We totally accept that parents want their children to come back but it’s a challenge. I personally feel it’s too early. There are other parts of the country where they have asked to do it later and obviously Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland aren’t going back until September.

“I’m not against schools reopening. I just feel it has felt a bit rushed and I don’t think the government has listened enough to school leaders.

“The rate of infection nationally is still close to R1, which is when the virus spreads exponentially. Why not wait until the infection rate comes down and then reopen schools?

“The Independent Sage group said if we just waited until June 15 we could have halved the infection rate again. It would have been safer if we waited and I know that’s what the unions feel. We have the highest death rate in Europe – and yet we are rushing this.

Shirley Primary School's socially distanced classroom (35851541)
Shirley Primary School's socially distanced classroom (35851541)

“The government hasn’t covered themselves in glory at all, that’s the way school leaders feel. They feel it has been rushed, a bit like the whole approach to coronavirus. I accept the point that vulnerable children need to be back in school, but if they are doing it differently in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, why are they making this decision for us?”
The school is intending to reopen to reception, Year 1 and Year 6 from next week, but parents of only around half of the children in those years have indicated they will return.
Meanwhile, the school is spending this week moving furniture and finalising increased health and safety routines. The school is intending to reopen to reception, Year 1 and Year 6 from next week, but parents of only around half of the children in those years have indicated they will return.

Children will be taught in 'bubbles' of fewer than 12. Each group will have its own toilet, separate arrival and departure times and dedicated staff members who will not teach other groups.

Staff have done a great job with home learning

"Staff are understandably anxious and we’re working to reassure them. They have done a great job with home learning, that’s really gone well, and I want to thank them for all their hard work - including working through the holidays. "There's been quotes from some people in the media that schools have been closed when they haven't. They have been open to some children and staff have been working really hard on online working. The local authority has been very supportive too and we‘ve had lots of communication with them about the safety measures we need to put in place.“The government has said it wants all the children back to do a month of school before the summer holidays. I just want to be frank and say that's extremely unlikely given the current guidance we have to meet from the Department for Education about distancing.

Shirley Primary School's socially distanced classroom (35851541)
Shirley Primary School's socially distanced classroom (35851541)

“Just do the maths - about 100 children will be returning in a school of 400. Around 25 per cent of our school population is coming back and that is with us using virtually all of our teachers and teaching assistants. We will be able to expand a little bit but only depending on the guidance. It wouldn’t be logistically possible to have all the children back with social distancing and I think the government is strongly being advised to rescind on that early promise to parents."

He added that social distancing would be a challenge: “We won’t expect the younger ones to keep two metres apart because it's not fair on them. When the children come back there will quite naturally be examples where they want to hug the adult they are working with - we will have to do our best to try and limit that happening.

“We have to keep some elements of normality, though, otherwise it will be too distressing.”

Many lessons are set to be taught outside and parents will be asked to queue two metres apart along the street at pick-up times "like at Tesco".

Sally Haiselden, headteacher of Cherry Hinton Primary School, explained she would also be welcoming children back next week.

“We all very much want to do our duty by the children and I believe that with the amount of children coming back we can manage to put all the required safety measures in place," she said.

Cherry Hinton Primary School playground equipment has been taped off (35851534)
Cherry Hinton Primary School playground equipment has been taped off (35851534)

"But we have had to cordon off the climbing equipment and we have closed the library because if a child touches a book we would have to leave it 72 hours before anyone else could safely touch it. Unfortunately you can’t clean a book. We’ve also spent a lot of time moving furniture and equipment out of classrooms to make more space.”

If 10 or 11 children come back in each class, they will be able to stay in their original classrooms. But for all classes to return, the headteacher said Cherry Hinton would need "an extra school" to achieve it safely.

“We can just about fit these first children who return into their original classrooms with desks and seats two metres apart but if more return we may have to use the hall. It’s likely we will do a lot of outside learning, especially with the younger children," she said.

“I think it's unrealistic for all children to come back to school unless we are allowed to do a rota with groups at different times, but at the moment the guidance is not to have a rota because you have to keep the same member of staff with the same bubble of children.

“And if we had to keep up social distancing we would need double the space and double the staff - so basically an extra school.”

The year one classroon at Cherry Hinton Primary School (35851546)
The year one classroon at Cherry Hinton Primary School (35851546)

For children about to end their primary school career it will be an unusual send-off.

“Sadly the Year 6 children will be ending their primary school in a way they didn't imagine and they will have to establish new friendship groups among the children who return. Their class teacher will be working remotely and they will be supervised by a teaching assistant.”

As the school has a large field she has planned for much of the learning to take place outside. But one of the children’s favourite activities, singing, has been banned: “Apparently it can spread the virus much further in the air - that’s the advice we have had.

“We are still allowed to do dancing with the children but singing was always a big part of our day as a church school.”

Waterbeach Community Primary School has sent a letter to parents in which headteacher Jane Green tells parents the school environment will not be as bad as some expect.

She writes: “I have seen some horror stories recently about how classrooms will be stripped of everything and children will be expected to learn in an almost Victorian-style classroom. Guidance clearly states that isolated pods may use their own designated toys, games and other resources. They must be regularly cleaned but if used consistently by the same children there is a lower risk. We will not be subjecting our children to a resourceless environment.

“The reality is that children are not robots and although this virus is a real threat, it may be less so to young children. While protecting our adults, who have been guided on how to approach and work with the children, it is important to remember that returning to school is going to be quite a big step, especially for our youngest. I want the children to be happy when they return to school.”

She is making a video so children can be prepared for their new school environment.

Parents of primary school children remain divided about whether it is the right time for pupils to return to the classroom.

Cambridge mum Emma Wright, whose son attends St Matthew’s Primary School, said he needed to get back to class.

“Home schooling hasn't worked for my child,” she explained. “He needs to be with children his own age, with a skilled teacher and access to learning resources which support him. Our school has been great at providing a learning pack each week, however he has struggled to stay motivated to complete the work. We have focused on reading and writing and drawing for pleasure instead. I am also working (as a childminder) and this restricts the time I can spend with him.

“I am reasonably confident infection levels in our area are low and I am very confident our school will do everything they can to look after the children. I have no faith or belief in the government to do the right thing, but individually we all have to assess and manage risk ourselves. The damage to my child's mental health is my key concern. It would be really helpful if we could get more detailed information on levels of infection locally so that people can make decisions individually.

Graeme Hodgson and family
Graeme Hodgson and family

“I have three other children of my own who desperately need to be back in some kind of school structure. Online and distance learning is not the solution for the majority of children or teenagers. The decision to prioritise reception and Year 1 children makes little sense to parents other than to provide childcare. From an educational perspective we need to prioritise the older children.”

Another mum, who was planning to send her child back, said she wanted to remain anonymous for fear of a backlash from other parents.

“I don't want the personal vitriol I know my choice will attract," she said. "I'm not even discussing with friends whether we're sending the kids back. I live in Cambridge and have three children aged seven and under, including one in reception.

“I don't trust the government at all and don't believe 'the science' yet paints a conclusive picture, but I do trust our school's headteacher. If she is confident to open then I am confident to send my child.

“I also weighed the specific risks concerning my family: with the rest of us observing distancing, we're unlikely to send the virus into school - certainly far less likely than the key worker families already there. No one in our household faces particular risks if our child brings it home from school - and again we're unlikely to pass it on further.

"Meanwhile, the loss of childcare in lockdown has caused the collapse of the business I spent seven years building, and my kids behaving like zoo animals trapped in a too-small enclosure. People fret that a social distancing school isn't a 'mentally healthy environment' for kids but some - like us - are in dismal mental health at home.”

Graeme Hodgson, who lives in Romsey with his wife Elaine, and children Lucas, 9, Daniel, 11, and Sofia, 15,is glad their schools have decided not to ask them to return.

“None of them have been able to go back to the school yet because they don't have the capacity or teachers necessary to split their classes into four. The government advice is class sizes should be a quarter of normal sizes and you don’t have to be a genius to work out that means you need four times as many teachers, which they don’t have. So both the St Philip's Primary and Parkside secondary school have said they don’t expect the children to be able to go back this year.

“They are talking about a staggered return for reception and Year 1 but there will be nothing for Year 6. We are very concerned about the return to school and the possibility of a second wave so my wife and I have both agreed that it's absolutely fine if they don't go back to school. At the moment most of the experts seem to think it's not safe.

"I can understand some parents may be in a different position. My wife and I are working from home and we can look after the three kids. I do understand those people who are losing out on earning and need to have someone look after their kids so they can go to work face a different reality.

“People here in Romsey seem to be very much on the wavelength that it's not safe yet for children to be going to school. People think the government has been very reckless with people’s health.”

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