New Normal

At one point I sat down on a desk in one of the Year 6 classrooms – actually I think I slumped – and involuntarily emitted the words: “What on earth are we doing?”

We had spent the afternoon walking the site, both inside and out, looking at the logistics of reopening our two schools in the middle of a worldwide pandemic in such a way that our parents would consider it safe to send their children in. We had looked at routes into school, the entrance points, staggered start and finish times; protocols for handwashing, toileting, cleaning, first aid; where children will keep their stuff, what we will allow them to bring and what we will provide; how we will keep groups of children in their bubbles at breaks and lunch, not mixing with other bubbles; how the classrooms will look, the positioning of desks and chairs, and then how you would go about teaching. All this needs thinking through in the tiniest detail. We can’t simply show up and teach in the way we always have.

Books are a good example. The traditional classroom model is for everyone to have an exercise book to write in and for the teacher to collect them at the end of the lesson, take them away and mark them, and then given them back at the start of the next lesson. (We don’t hand them out by throwing them around anymore by the way, like they did when I was at school. My dad was a geography teacher in the seventies and eighties and prided himself on being to land an exercise book on any desk in the class to order. He used to spin them like a frisbee and they would arc through the air before landing softly on the desk in front of the child. It’s surprising he didn’t decapitate anyone).

But we won’t be able to treat books in the same way. The books can’t be handed in, then all handled by the teacher and handed back out to each child. And we can’t disinfect the surface of a book in the same way that we can the surface of a desk, or even a pen. So children will have to work in their own books and the teachers will have to build self-marking into their lessons. Not rocket science, but it still needs thinking about and planning.

So we lugged the desks and chairs around until we had got everyone sitting the correct, carefully measured distance apart, and we were starting to look at resources in trays (scissors, rulers, paper, maths resources etc) and concluding that the whole tray stack would have to be taped up and not used, like some sort of TV drama crime scene….and that was when my moment of doubt occurred. What on earth were we doing?

Anyone who has worked in a primary school will tell you that what I have described above is not what any of us would like it to be about. Schools are above all social places, where young people learn to interact and find their voice among their peers, and yet we are designing ways of keeping them apart. They are places where children learn to be independent and self-sufficient, and yet we are restricting their movements and taping up the resource trays.

You may think we would simply have to follow the detailed and timely guidance provided by the government at such a prescriptive time of central control. Hmmm. In fact, the flow of information from the Department of Education has been chaotic to the point of useless. When the Prime Minister announced on that Sunday evening that school may reopen on June 1st we had already begun thinking through what we might do, of course, but our preparations began immediately given such a short timeframe. However, we had radio silence from the DfE until the end of Monday, by which time we had already done much of our planning. By the Thursday, we had pretty much completed our masterplans and were moving towards communicating them to everyone, at which point the DfE, with comic timing, brought out a guide to how to plan for reopening. I don’t know what they thought we had been doing for the preceding four days.

The best thing we did was contact our local Caister branch of Tesco. Their stores, as you may have experienced, have been set up to ensure customers move in specific socially-distanced flows around the shop, from the car park all the way through to the tills. We wanted to be able to replicate this for parents bringing their children to school and collecting them later in the day. What you probably won’t be familiar with is the level of planning which lies behind that – Tesco have an incredibly detailed manual for how to set up a socially distanced store, how to keep it clean, where to station marshals, and where to put all those lines and arrows on the floor. We have used their model in our planning for reopening and we are indebted to them for that.

Early on in the lockdown, when it was uncertain whether schools were simply going to shut down completely rather than remain open for key worker and vulnerable children, there was a whisper from Norfolk County Council that school staff might be redeployed through the crisis in other council-run services. I guess this was a deliberately flown kite to gauge our reactions, but mine was quite favourable. I liked the sound of it. Posted to a care home (I assumed they weren’t going to ask me to resurface the roads) to make tea and mop the floors while chatting to the residents. Sounded lovely. And when it was all over, they could just leave me there; it would be about time.

Those days seem long ago. We have actually been open every day since we closed to the majority of pupils on March 20th; all through Easter, including Good Friday and Easter Monday; and May Day. We’ve had between 20-40 pupils in our two schools most of the time and all our available staff have done at least one week-long shift, sometimes two, as well as the work they have being doing online the rest of the time.

We have been utterly committed to keeping the school open for those key worker children, happily taking them earlier than we probably should in the morning and sitting there long past teatime (and boy have these kids got through a lot of beans on toast) until their parents can get back from work to collect them. It’s been lovely and thoroughly worthwhile.

And the same motivation provides the answer to the question I involuntarily posed to myself at the start of this blog. Our families and our children need us to open. At least a significant number of them do. They may not all be key workers, but the economic and social impact of what has happened, the relentlessness and sometimes disharmony of home, the weeks of lost learning (and I mean that in the very broadest sense of primary education) gives us a strong moral imperative to open our doors more widely (and to prop them open so that no one has to touch the door handle).

We need to find our new normal. It could be like this for some time to come and we need to adapt. Our friends at Tesco found the first few weeks of lockdown very difficult as they put their processes in place, but they evolved, and people got used to them, and now shopping there is a smoothly-run well-understood process. We will need to find our new way of doing things here too. The children will need to understand and accept what they can do and what they can’t do, what they can have and what they cannot. We will all have to learn to harness the good things we have learned about ourselves and each other in the last few weeks; about how we learn, about collaboration, about friendship and family, about the power of technology and about quality of life. Those, among many more life lessons that we are all learning all of the time.