Manchester’s educators talk about the need to keep students and staff safe upon returning to school but also want suitable support for children returning and adequate funding to enable it.
Teachers in Manchester are keen for children to get back to their books and a formal education, but many have expressed worries over a safe return to school amid Covid-19 concerns.
In a statement released on 10 May, just after Boris Johnson revealed to the nation that schools would start a phased reopening on June 1, Paul Whiteman, General Secretary, NAHT (National Association of Head Teachers), said:
“Our members have devoted their lives and careers to the care and education of young people – they do not want to see classrooms empty for a day longer than they need to… however, as any school leader will tell you, the first priority has to be the safety of everyone in the school community.”
Manchester Council agrees and have stated that each school will work at its own pace as there will be no uniform approach and, in most cases, it will be unlikely that pupils will be able to start on 1 June.
Returning to school difficulties
Richie Hannon, year five teacher and PE lead at Rolls Crescent Primary School in Hulme, feels that returning too early is problematic. He believes that children may feel a sense of anxiety and fear and “possibly associate school with being an unsafe place to be; the opposite of what we want for our students. This anxiety will be prevalent in some staff as well”, and that younger children need connection and if they cannot get it due to social distancing, “the separation may cause some long-lasting mental damage.”
A second spike of virus infections due to the early return to school is also a concern for Hannon. According to the advice of the Independent Sage group, waiting two weeks or even delaying the return till September would reduce the risk of infection considerably.
Stephen Longden, religious studies teacher at Chorlton High School, agrees that the science needs to be there to return. He also worries about the logistics, as the physical layout of some school buildings make it difficult to keep social distancing with trying to have only 10-15 students per class and keeping everyone two metres apart.
Secondary school students move to five different classes per day, and younger students forget to cover sneezes, which may exasperate infections with no PPE available. Longden also feels that “the risks based on age, ethnicity, and disability must be identified for students and staff.”
Bina Stone, a qualified teacher of visual impairment
(QTVI), works in the North West for a sensory support service for children and
young people with a visual impairment aged 0 to 19. She says:
“Covid-19 has highlighted just how badly the education system is funded in the UK. Education spending has been slashed by billions in the last ten years. Many education staff including myself use their own money and resources to support pupil learning.
“Many schools are having to rely on parental contributions to school budgets and parent-teacher association (PTA) committees raising money for school resources.”
Lockdown will have created gaps in learning and education
says Stone, “particularly for vulnerable students from disadvantaged
backgrounds and they may fall further behind.”
Stone is also worried about safety as social distancing is difficult to manage and adds that “for my pupils this is particularly difficult as I work one to one with students in close proximity. We often use tactile methods. We use hand over hand contact with Early Pupils or those with complex learning needs.”
Problems during lockdown
During lockdown, the shortage of technology, the lack of motivation and engagement, the struggles involved with home education, the absence of life skills learning, and hunger were mentioned as barriers to education, by the educators interviewed for this article.
The Wood Street Mission is a children’s charity that helps children and families on a low income in Manchester and Salford. They told The Meteor, that, “Holiday hunger is always a problem for low income families, but often there are meal clubs and projects set up in the local community to try and address that. Due to lockdown and social distancing they won’t be happening at the moment” and added that connectivity and IT is also a problem for families for home learning.
Hannon’s experience in Hulme shows that lack of technology is a barrier to children using the missions services. He divulges that some families do not have internet, or some families have one device that needs to be shared. He says, “I am getting reports from some children that they only have a few minutes to complete tasks as parents and siblings need the laptop, tablet, phone or whatever the device is. I try to set tasks that do not always need technology, but these are only part of the home learning.”
Stone, whose students are visually impaired, agrees that access to technology is a barrier and adds, “it is essential that those, particularly with significant visual impairments, have low vision aids such electronic magnifiers in order to magnify resources/worksheets.”
It may not be easy for some parents to engage their children in home learning, says Stone, as it is something they will have relied on teachers to do previously. Hannon believes home learning creates difficulties ”when teaching I try to frame the learning within context so that the children have a purpose for learning. There is always praise and challenge which drives motivation. This is difficult to create outside of a classroom setting.”
Primary teacher Hannon also knows from his own family
that working from home and home schooling at the same time may be difficult. He
says, for some families, “Imagine a day where you get up, make breakfast for
three children and then log on to complete employment tasks as well as
supporting three children, maybe even on one device”.
Teacher of the visually impaired Stone, is worried that her students are missing out on more than an academic education. While attending school they also learn about independence and negotiation skills, meeting others, getting around, looking after themselves, and life after school. She gives an example:
“Those who are severely sight impaired with little or no functional vision, may need mobility training in how to use a long cane. This is usually carried out by a qualified mobility/habilitation officer who would need to work closely with a pupil one to one in close proximity.”
Practical solutions to aid the return to school
Hannon suggests providing all schools with testing kits, thermometers, handwashing stations, and enough purposeful PPE to provide some sort of barrier to infection. He also believes that school children should be addressed nationally to explain the reason for going back to school and why it is believed to be safe to return.
Mental health and well-being for pupils, parents, and staff is important, says Stone “some may have lost relatives and friends to Covid-19 so allow them to express how they are feeling”. She stresses the importance of communication, taking time to adjust, staggering opening times, and establishing a routine as soon as possible.
Longden, feels that the return to school should be done slowly and start with year 10. PPE and risk assessments should be done. He adds, ”Finding a solution will be a learning experience.”
What can be learned?
Since Covid-19, many prior educational issues such as lack of funding and access to technology, have been accentuated. Teachers agree that the current situation is full of difficult decisions and there is no history to fall back on, but wanting their students to return to a safe environment is important to them.
The quick decision to return to classes without many guidelines or the science behind the decision, has mobilised educators. The NEU (National Education Union) obtained 10,000 new members and 2,000 new school reps in just a few days after the return to school announcement.
Educators in Manchester want to return to classes, but they want to do it in the best possible way for children and staff.
By Dale Anne McAulay
Feature image: GOV.UK