This article was originally published by Tes Editorial.

Last week, primary schools in England welcomed back children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6. How did this wider opening go? We asked the leaders of four primary and nursery schools to tell us what their first week back has been like. 

Reopening schools: first week back

‘When you walk in, the first thing you see is yellow and black tape everywhere’

Helen Pinnington, early years foundation lead at St Thomas More’s Catholic Primary School in Bedhampton, Hampshire

Overall, the atmosphere is very calm and there is a gentle pace, which is a massive contrast to how we spent our half term – with a huge media storm building, emails flying around and a lot of anxiety. But I am pleased that we put so much effort into our preparation for return because things are running so smoothly now.

Although it is June, it feels like the beginning of term as children have been mixed up into new classes of approximately 10 children. To mark this change, we created a new name for each class to help give a new sense of belonging and identity. One of our Reception classes became “Jellyfish”, for example.  

Just as on any first day back, we talked a lot about the rules. Children got to know their new bubble and new teacher (a large number have a new teacher and not the one they had before we closed). Of course, there was a lot of discussion about handwashing, maintaining two-metre distances and not sharing equipment – all of which is very unnatural for the children, so they easily forget. We had to explain lots of ways of doing things differently; you cannot just go to the toilet, for example. Instead, the bubble must all go on a toilet trip together to avoid crossing paths with other children.

We have really clear guidelines in place, which we are all working to, although this takes some getting used to. I have to say, it feels very regimented, ordered and clinical. When you walk in, the first thing you see is yellow and black tape everywhere and large health and safety signs dotted all over the school.

However, alongside this, we have the warmth of our wonderful staff, who are trying their best to help ease children’s anxiety and to adapt practice in any way they possibly can to make it a better experience for the children. Everyone has been unanimous in the decision that if a child becomes distressed, we will still offer them a hug as reassurance, despite the risks.

I think we all recognise that social distancing is impossible with young children, but we try to minimise physical contact where possible. Inevitably, though, there is a grazed knee, toileting accident or that shoelace that needs assistance. 

The actual practice of teaching in general is also pretty difficult at a distance. We are committed to teaching, not simply providing childcare, but this hasn’t been easy. Children ask for help with their maths or writing and naturally you need to sit quite close to them to be able to see what they are doing and offer feedback. 

Listening to a child read, for example, is a very basic part of teaching that must be done differently. The books cannot be shared, so we are devising a system of selecting piles of books which, once used, then go into the “quarantine pile” for a few days.

Lunches and breaktimes have also proved challenging. To avoid cross-contamination, younger children must have packed lunches in the garden. We sat them in a circle on little boxes and tree stumps to have a “picnic”, which they loved because it was different. 

However, such arrangements are completely weather-dependent. There is a system of covering lunch breaks and moving children around the school into their specific allocated outdoor spaces and these plans were thrown into chaos when we had our first wet playtime.  

This week, I have also come to realise that handwashing and toileting is only going to work with small numbers of children. We manage to share toilets between nursery and Reception classes, but this is because we stagger the use and have small numbers. We have to plan for toilet breaks as part of the routine.

However, the biggest area of planning by far has been staffing for each and every class, considering breaks, lunchtimes, first aid, toileting and children who have additional needs. My biggest concern is what will happen when we get a phone call to say a member of staff is ill. This will have a domino effect. 

Apparently, the guidance advises that we can pull on supply teachers, but I think it seems to defeat the object of not crossing bubbles, considering supply teachers must have mixed with a fair few children and schools.

Despite all these concerns, the thing that has surprised me the most about the return has been the children’s response. They seem calm and happy and I have to say pretty resilient.  They have quickly adapted to such a huge change in their school environment with a different teacher and group, even though many of them are under five years old.

‘I didn’t expect to make so many signs – it seems we need signs for everything now’

Jason Gilman-Hughes, headteacher at Oxley Primary School in Leicestershire

There was a mixture of emotions on show as we opened the school gate, ranging from trepidation and nervousness to real excitement – some children were desperate to be back!  

We started with just our Year 6 this week, something which had very strong support amongst our parents. As the oldest, they have found it easier to adjust to the new normal and they have generally reacted very well to being back.

We have had to be flexible to support some pupils. One child with communication and interaction difficulties needed to be able to come into school earlier than the rest, so he could meet his teacher again, see how everything was laid out and ask any questions he had. That really helped him to settle into his first day back. 

We also know of at least one other child who had been looking forward to coming back, but at the last minute had strongly resisted parent’s attempts to persuade them to come to school. 

However, by day two (Tuesday), there was a noticeable air of confidence as the children arrived in school. And, of course, for our key worker group, who have been in school throughout the lockdown period, school is similar to before, just with more children around. 

One thing that has surprised me has been the way that the children have made up their own playground games, given the fact they haven’t got any equipment to use for the time being. It’s amazing how resourceful they can be; it has made me question my recent observations that children “don’t know how to play, nowadays”.

Although the children have adapted well, there have been difficulties. For instance, it’s been really hard trying to work out if it’s safe enough for some members of staff to come into school: the staff who don’t fall under the “critically vulnerable” groups, for example, but have underlying conditions. Sometimes even the medical professionals won’t say whether they think the person should be back in school and say it’s up to me, as if I have the requisite medical expertise to decide such a thing!

It’s a huge responsibility and headteachers couldn’t forgive themselves if they thought they were putting staff at risk.  

On a more trivial matter, I didn’t expect to have to make so many signs, in addition to the obvious ones about hand washing or social distancing. It seems we need signs for almost everything now – even things like reminding everyone to wash teaspoons and not leave them in the sink.

But despite needing the occasional reminder to wash up their spoons, I am so proud of all my staff. The leadership team have done an incredible job of supporting me to organise the bubbles and the complex logistics. Teachers have gone out of their way to support families by communicating with them and reassuring them, sending pictures of the new-look classrooms, and so on. Some have had video chats with children to help them stay in touch. The premises officer and cleaner have done a great job of getting the school ready, even going to the local shops to buy extra hand gel to supplement the stocks. They have worked through the holidays to help get things ready. The office staff have also worked through the holidays, to provide that essential support to staff providing the care in school, and being a point of contact for parents and carers. 

The biggest lesson I have learnt from all of this is that in spite of the “noise” on social media, in the press and among colleagues across the country – as well as wading through the interminable guidance from the DfE – it’s best to try to cut through it all and focus on what we think is right for our school at this point in time. 

This is so unusual because as heads, we often ask each other for advice, pinching ideas from one another. In this case, it’s not so easy to do that because what one school is doing can be entirely different to another one just down the road. In the end, you need to do what you think is right and stick with it. That’s not always easy, but I think it’s the only way to stay focused and not be swayed by the extraneous “noise” right now.

‘We gave each parent a flower, to celebrate their child’s return’

Julian Grenier, headteacher at Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Norfolk 

Before coming back, there were three things that we put in place that have made the return easier for all of us.

First, to prepare parents for the new arrangements at drop-off and pick-up times, we made a short video showing a child coming in, sanitising their hands, and then saying goodbye whilst their parent left through the new exit. Parents told us that they watched this multiple times with their children, so that it did not come as a surprise. 

Normally, we encourage parents to take their time when dropping off, touch base with the key person, and so on, but now we need the process to happen quickly as everyone else is queuing and waiting their turn.

Secondly, we wanted to support parents to talk through any worries, fears, and anxieties with their child. So we used information from the Anna Freud Centre for early years parents and broke this down into a series of very short videos. Parents have said that these short videos helped them to talk to their child and support them.

Finally, we thought it was important to have some sort of symbol to mark the return. So we gave each parent a flower at the sanitising station, to celebrate their child’s return. And then at the end of the day, we gave each child a big, ripe strawberry when they said goodbye, to symbolise all the lovely, juicy play and learning they’ll be doing again with their friends.

These measures have helped, but that doesn’t mean the return has been challenge-free. Getting both the risk assessment and operational protocol documents right has been incredibly difficult. We see these as dynamic documents, so they change as we learn new things. That’s a lot of work as a headteacher. It has to be managed carefully for staff; I clearly listen to their feedback, but also don’t want to change things so often that all our heads spin.

The biggest lesson I have learned so far is that everything is about having open, honest and respectful relationships with parents. It’s because of the strong relationships we’ve got, that parents have been confident about more children coming back.

As for the children, their reactions to being back have been mixed. Some absolutely took the new arrangements in their stride and they couldn’t wait to get in. Others were more tentative and had a bit of a wobble – so it was important that we had maintained our key person system to give them the emotional support they needed, and ultimately, every child settled back well. 

I was surprised by the emotions of parents. They were incredibly thankful that we had reopened and very grateful for all the hard work our team have done to make this safe.

Our newly qualified teacher, Rahima Begum, is now the only full-time teacher working directly with the children. Other teachers are shielding and remain at home. She has completely risen to the challenge of leading her team and making sure that we get our new operational protocol right.

But it’s truly been a team effort and there are countless team members who have done great things in the most unassuming ways.  

‘The incentive of having their very own tub of Play-Doh was hard for children to resist’

Melissa Heppell, principal – primary, Atlantic Academy in Portland, Dorset

Day one was tough. Some of our youngest pupils were apprehensive; it’s all so very different especially as we cannot permit parents coming onto the site. 

However, knowing my pupils and their interests made it easier. The incentive of having their very own tub of Play-Doh, and a personalised pack of chalks to draw all over the playground with, was hard for them to resist. Once this news was discovered and shared, the younger pupils quite happily skipped back into school.

Our Year 6, on the other hand, have been incredibly excited to be back in. They were quite literally bouncing around on their two-metre distance markings, whilst waiting to be let in.  

This was really nice for us to see. As you can imagine, before we opened, everyone’s anxiety level was very high, including my own – there is so much to think of and so much to do. The structure of the day is incredibly different and there are a whole new set of rules and expectations to follow. We were concerned about how children were going to remember to do everything. 

We shouldn’t have been. We’ve seen time after time how incredibly resilient children are. They slot in. Most cope with changes very well and they constantly remind you about the routines and what they should be doing. 

However, keeping on top of the changes to guidance and advice has been the biggest challenge for sure. As headteachers we, of course, need to make sure we are only open in a way that does not place our pupils, staff and our local community at any increased risk, so ensuring that the plans we had in place are the best provision our school can offer was important to me. Not being influenced by others’ decisions was a challenge, but I know the steps we have taken are suitable and right for Atlantic and we have continued to support our parents in making the right choice for their children. 

There have of course been other challenges – we are reopening school in conditions we have never before seen, but with all the challenges we have faced at Atlantic, we have ensured that we have worked together as a team and consulted with staff to overcome these and find the best solutions for us.

Our biggest lesson however through all this time has been the value of online learning and developing our online community. We have distributed all our Chromebooks to our disadvantaged students to ensure all the pupils at Atlantic can get online. 

The best thing is that those children working at home and those in school but in different bubbles can continue to communicate through our online platforms. We’ve been using Google Classroom throughout lockdown and continue to do so now. This means that year groups as a whole, friendship groups and peers can still support one another, it doesn’t matter where they are learning from.

Our online provision has ensured that staff can upload work from the safety of their own homes if they are in the vulnerable category, provide some face-to-face teaching through video messages and can ensure the high quality of education we always deliver has remained. 

It hasn’t mattered, and doesn’t, moving forward, if any student is at home, in school as a key worker child or in one of our newly launched bubbles – we know that every student is receiving the same level of education, pastoral care and support. 

When reality returns, we are definitely not going to lose this provision. It’s been a valuable lesson for us and has ensured we are able to continue to develop our community and team to provide the best care and support network to the students of Portland.