Uncertain times for schools, staff, parents and pupils but legislation trumps guidance.
The announcement of the Prime Minister that more children would be going back to school beyond those children of key workers and the most vulnerable, was a moment in time which came too soon for many working in our schools. That sense of prematurity and the plethora of questions that accompanied it, not helped by the delay in explaining how this was going to work, created a spike in anxiety and worry that has damaged the mental health of staff, pupils and parents.
How am I going to fit 15 children in a classroom with only enough distancing space for 8?
How am I going to keep children in bubbles?
How am I going to staff this when 50% of my staff are shielding?
How do these regulations apply to special schools?
How do we keep ourselves and our children safe from the virus? Will I need PPE?
Have the scientists said it is safe to go back?
How do we manage cross contamination in toilets and in hand washing?
How do I assure parents that all equipment in Foundation Stage, every brick or piece of lego is clean?
These are just a few of the questions raised by the PM’s announcement and compounded by conflicting advice from government health advisers who say one thing and then clearly are reigned back and “clarify” their position. None of this breeds confidence and indeed breeds concern and doubt. I think there is much to learn from the collaboration between government and the profession in New Zealand but that is for another day.
The response to this virus seems to be going in phases and right now we are in a phase where we need to plan, risk assess and make a decision about whether it is safe for increased numbers of pupils to come back to your school. Much will depend on your staffing, your building and even the region of the country you are in and the relevant local R figure.
Most school leaders are beginning to get their heads around this process and will arrive at a decision that is right for them and their school. During this process it is vital that school leaders involve the governing body or trust board. Not only do they have a stake in this decision, but they are in a position to support school leaders mentally. Let’s not pretend this is easy. This is a once in a lifetime set of decisions and none of us are infallible. The key for school leaders is to share their thinking for the sake of their own wellbeing. No one has more control over the safe opening of their school than the head and chair of the local governing body.
It is reassuring to hear that school leaders are sharing their risk assessments with teachers and asking for comment. Their knowledge of their children and the area of the building they work in is vital. Share the planning and make it collaborative, but don’t stop there. Some of the most worried staff are Teaching Assistants who have largely sat outside the planning process. A webinar we held recently showed a huge amount of concern with TA’s. If they are to have confidence in the return, then they need to be familiar and feel comfortable with decisions made and planning that has been carried out.
It is vital that all staff have a share in this knowledge, planning and decision making and that all are welcomed back to some form of training before the children come back.
Knowing what the plan is, having confidence in it and being reassured that no stone has been left unturned helps to generate a greater sense of control over the situation. The one thing this virus has done beyond the medical impact, is that it has stripped away a lot of the control we have had over our lives. It’s time to re-establish that control over our school lives and involvement of staff is critical for their mental health.
The final area I would light to highlight is the need for everyone in our schools to be aware that those who are returning (both staff and pupils) will have a range of anxieties. Some of those will manifest themselves in what we would consider to be, out of character behaviours. If ever there was a need for an emotionally intelligent, empathetic response, it is now. As we mark mental health awareness week 2020 it is entirely appropriate that we are championing kindness. Please be kind to each other and take the time to appreciate each other. Every one of you is special, you do amazing jobs in helping our children to be the best that they can be, but we don’t know what each other is carrying in terms of their state of mental health. Be kind, take time with each other and the children, and look after each other.
We have collated some resources that might help you or your school with the return to wider opening, in addition to our raft of wellbeing support. Please have a look and if there are other things or suggestions that you think would be useful then please let me know. Of course if you would like a sounding board for some of the decisions that you are making you can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Andy Mellor – May 2020