For parents who have endured months of home schooling for the second time in just a year, the reopening of classrooms across England on Monday will prove a welcome respite.
But while many youngsters will flock through the gates to be reunited with their peers, some children may take longer to get back into the routine of school life – with one headteacher warning: “What we have is a return to abnormality, at least in the first instance.”
At secondary schools, students will need to be tested three times in the first two weeks, before being given two lateral flow tests to use each week at home, and have to wear face coverings indoors.
All primary and secondary school staff will also be offered twice-weekly rapid tests.
Meanwhile, A-levels, AS levels and GCSE exams have been cancelled and estimated grades will be used instead.
At primary schools, SATs have been scrapped alongside phonics and timetable testing.
With so many changes taking place, how can parents and schools best prepare their children for a return to the classroom?
For Juliette Lipshaw, headteacher of Sinai Jewish Primary School in Kenton, the welfare of all 642 children is at the forefront of her mind, and staff have been busy working on a catch-up curriculum.
She says: “We know the children are desperately yearning for the social interaction that school will give them as well as the normality of routine we all crave.
“We have formulated a comprehensive plan for our school to ensure we remain as Covid-19 secure as we possibly can. We do not want to just open, we want to stay open.”
Similarly, at schools run by the Jewish Community Academy Trust (JCAT), which looks after Hertsmere Jewish Primary School in Radlett, Rimon Jewish Primary School in Golders Green, Sacks Morasha in North Finchley and Wolfson Hillel in Southgate, well-being has been “at the core of everything we do”.
Sarah Jacobs, JCAT’s well-being practitioner, explains: “We will provide the children with sessions to reflect on the positive sides to having been in lockdown, honing in our resilience and acquired new skills. A big focus will be placed on reuniting as a school community.”
The mental health impact on secondary school children can also not be understated, argues Patrick Moriarty, headteacher of JCoSS in New Barnet.
He says: “Having interacted mostly online for so long, students (especially the younger ones) may have forgotten how to socialise, how to make and manage friendships, how to speak appropriately to each other and to their teachers, how to pace themselves, how to work as a group.
“Those skills and habits are like muscles, and they get weaker without use. We will need to get everyone back into training.”
Moriarty advises parents and youngsters not to worry about having fallen behind academically, and to focus instead on enjoying being back with their peers.
“What they have lost are the opportunities to be children and teenagers who grow into themselves as human beings by trying and failing at a wide variety of activities.
“For our students, most don’t need formal summer schools to catch up on missed learning; they need to run around and enjoy some freedom outside and away from screens.”
Rachel Fink, headteacher of JFS in Kenton, agrees there is “no substitute for face-to-face interactions” for both teaching and children to see one another and acknowledges there is “definitely a level of screen fatigue”. The school will also continue to provide catch-up programmes.
Some children will be feeling anxious about their peers getting ahead of them during lockdown, transitioning to secondary school, or have fears over catching Covid-19.
Rabbi David Meyer, executive director of Partnerships for Jewish Schools (PaJes), advises that parents speak openly to their children about any anxieties they may have.
“They should be reassured their safety is everyone’s priority, and that we are thankfully moving to a safer world.
“Everyone is aware that there have been challenges with learning over the past few months, and by taking small steps and setting realistic goals, we will soon be back on track.”
Parents should also try not to put their own anxieties onto youngsters, as well as recognise that each child will have been affected differently, says Dr Naomi Coleman, a child and adolescent clinical psychologist. “They’re not just one homogenous group,” she explains.
“Some children have flourished at home, while some have been more distressed or more anxious about going back to school. Some have really been missing school.
“Everyone has had very different experiences in the pandemic and certain things have had a larger impact, such as families affected financially, who were bereaved or where there may have been pre-existing vulnerabilities to mental health problems.
“Parents of younger children have also found this time especially stressful.
“We should be encouraging parents to speak out if they think their child is struggling, but they also need to be mindful of the language they use when talking about it in front of their child, as this can cause anxiety.
“Parents should remember children will eventually catch up. More important right now are their emotional needs, as well as our own.
“Remember, we haven’t seen or socialised in a normal way for months either, so in order to comfort children we really need to feel okay too.”
Dr Naomi Coleman can be contacted via Centennial Medical Care, centennialmedical.co.uk or 020 3327 7777
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