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Back to school – a post-lockdown guide for families

1 Jun 2020

As schools reopen in England, we answer your questions on how best to prepare children for the transition

With English schools starting to reopen, it’s a difficult time for both parents and children. After the challenges of homeschooling, it’s natural to feel some relief, but this will inevitably be mixed with other worries about the safety of children and the very different school and nursery environments.

Research shows that children benefit enormously from being in school, both socially and academically. So it’s important to understand what changes are being made by schools and nurseries to adapt to social-distancing – and how those changes will help protect families and children.

Is it safe for children to return to school?

According to the UK’s guidelines for parents and carers on the reopening of schools, there is moderately high scientific confidence that children are less likely to become unwell if infected with coronavirus.

Remember too, many schools have not closed at all. They’ve continued to provide education for the children of key workers and no outbreaks of Covid-19 have occurred in these settings.

What changes will children be facing at school?

Children will be kept in smaller classes which won’t mix at assemblies or playtime, for example. They will be told to wash their hands more often and taught about good hygiene.

Classrooms and public areas will be cleaned more frequently – and the layouts changed. For example, children will be kept socially distanced as far as possible and desks will be spaced apart, up to two metres, again where possible.

Who goes back to school first?

The guidance is to limit overall numbers while encouraging those children back who may benefit most.

Under-fives - from June 1, nurseries and early year providers will begin welcoming all children back.

Infant and primary school - children in nursery (where one exists), Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.

Secondary schools, sixth forms and Further Education colleges - these pupils will go back on a part-time basis, with some face-to face support before the summer holidays start, for example if they’re having exams.

Special schools – a phased return by year group, depending on personal risk assessment. It is hoped that all year groups will be back for the autumn term in September.

What will the school day look like?

Generally, the new school rules will start at drop-off. You will be given a time slot for bringing your child to school to avoid too many parents or caregivers at the school gate together. Don’t come by public transport if possible; walk, cycle or drive.

If you need to have a word with your child’s teacher, use email or text.

Once at school, your child will join a bubble of about 6-8 others in their class. This group might be given a marked off space in the playground where they can play until school starts. Bubbles will not be able to mix, although some schools are finding ways they can play or do sport alongside each other.

Before lessons start, they will wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds – and that will be repeated regularly. Schools will provide free hand sanitizer too. Everything students use during the day will stay at school. No pencil cases, toys or books can be brought in from home.

Lunchtimes will be staggered to prevent bubbles mixing by accident and packed lunches will be provided. At the end of the school day, time slots will have been allocated for pick-up.

Will children need to wear face masks?

The children in your family won’t have to wear face masks when they go back to school especially if they are too young to manage them. In fact, UK government advice expressly recommends that masks are not worn in schools. For more information on face masks for coronavirus, read our guide to the facts here.

Teachers won’t be wearing masks or PPE (personal protective equipment) either – unless they are in close contact with someone who has Covid-19 symptoms. School clothes will need to be washed every night – read our piece on washing and cleaning to help prevent coronavirus here.

What happens if there is an outbreak of coronavirus at school?

If any child or member of staff develops symptoms, they must self-isolate at home for seven days and everyone else in their household for 14 days. If they then test positive for Covid-19, everyone in their class or group will be asked to go home and isolate for 14 days. But if your child has been sent home for this reason, unless they show symptoms, you do not need to self-isolate too.

Testing will also be offered throughout the school for anyone with symptoms. And, under the UK government’s new Track and Trace programme launched in May 2020, if other cases are detected within the child’s or young person’s close contacts, or in the wider education or childcare setting, Public Health England’s local Health Protection Teams will conduct a rapid investigation. They will then advise the most appropriate action.

Will there be a fine if children don’t go back?

From September, the return to school will compulsary for all students (unless they have an underlying health condition) and the Government have said they will impose fines on families who choose not to send their children back to school.

How can I support the children in my family?

Be honest about how different school will look, says Laura Whitwood, Head of Junior School at St Dunstan’s College, in Catford, south London. ‘Find the balance between encouraging them to be excited but also realistic about the differences they’re facing to their routine, classes, the timetables.’ Remind children that their teachers will continue to be there for them and if they have any worries, they should speak up.

Do children need to prepare anything?

Children don’t need to do anything out of the ordinary or any sort of emergency revision, as this may panic them. For younger pupils, some books help outline the situation in a child-friendly way. Whitwood suggests Coronavirus: A Book for Children by Elizabeth Jenner, Kate Wilson & Nia Roberts and the YouTube video ‘While We Can’t Hug’.

How can I get them back into a routine after lockdown?

If possible, spend a few nights before the return to the classroom getting children back into school routines and timings, says Whitwood.

Try to encourage children to spend the day before their return outside, exercising and playing, so they’re tired enough to sleep and wake at hours that correspond with their school routine.

‘If they are tired from activity, they will be more likely to fall asleep instead of staying awake late at night.’

How can I reassure anxious children before school starts?

‘Support children by helping them prepare and adapt in the first few weeks,’ says Dr Nihara Krause, consultant clinical psychologist and founder of stem4, a charity that works with teenage mental health. ‘For example, run through school work and projects, reading and spelling the night before and make sure you give them time to get used to new changes’.

Focus on what is still familiar and positive about school. For example, the sense of community, their close relationships and what they enjoy about it, Dr Krause suggests. ‘You can help them reconnect with friends remotely or by ‘meeting’ with suitable social distancing,’ she says.

‘Provide them with a positive framework of how things will change once they get used to it,’ she says.

What emotional challenges are children likely to face?

Some children may have a different teacher and be in a different friendship group which could make them anxious or upset.

‘They may miss parents and their family routine and find it hard to separate,’ says Dr Krause. ‘There may be less or more focus on academic work which will affect children in different ways.’

School will be quieter places now too. ‘This may place a higher focus on behaviour causing worries for some children,’ Dr Krause points out.

‘If they have experienced a bereavement or a family member who has been unwell, children may be more anxious about the illness - for themselves but also of re-infecting their families.’

It is not unusual when children are worried for them to revert to being ‘younger’, she says. That means you might see more behaviours such as bed-wetting or wanting to sleep with parents as a result of children being fearful or anxious.

‘These are not signs of ‘bad’ behaviour and should not be punished but be seen as a form of distressed communication,’ Dr Krause asserts.

Support children by using strategies you might have done when they were younger. For example, more time with you, reverting to an old bedtime routine or introducing previous safety techniques such as having a blanket or a teddy they used to sleep with.

What calming techniques work?

Children respond well to understanding what their anxiety feelings are about. For example, explaining that ‘Your tummy hurts because your muscles are all scrunched up - that’s what happens when we all get scared.’

‘Easy relaxation or breathing strategies, distractions (dependent on age), or an alternative positive framework of thinking can also help’, says Dr Krause.

The stem4 Clear Fear free app uses cognitive behavioural techniques (CBT) to provide children and young people aged 11 and over (younger children can use it with the help of parents) to challenge thoughts, manage emotions, anxious behaviours, and learn to breathe and relax.’

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