Wigan schools begin welcoming pupils back to classrooms
Formal education resuming was always going to be a major milestone in the return to something like normal life.
The issue has been at the forefront of the political agenda for weeks, with debates about safety for young people and staff alike and what the best ways to prevent spikes of infections in schools will be.
Wigan Council’s interim assistant director of education Cath Pealing says it is the sheer amount that is still unknown that is the biggest worry.
However, she said schools and colleges across the borough have pulled out all the stops to create a Covid-19 secure environment for employees and young people alike.
And as pupils began to return to the classroom on Wednesday there was room for optimism amid a sense that getting formal learning going ahead was a positive step for young people.
This is despite the school environment looking very different to pre-coronavirus, with social distancing in place, hand sanitiser stations in buildings, rigorous cleaning regimes deployed and other measures put in to keep everyone safe.
However, there was also acknowledgement that for some people the return to the classroom brings with it real health fears.
Ms Pealing said: "“Having spoken to our school leaders, it is clear that most of our children and young people are really keen to get back to their schools, to see their teachers, their friends and to move on to the next phase of their education i.e primary to secondary and secondary to college.
“Most parents are also keen to see their children return to more formal education but we appreciate that there remains some anxiety for a small number where they may be concerned about a member of their household’s health or unsure of what their school will look like or what the new rules will be.
“There has been and will be further helpful information published to offer reassurance on going back to school.
“It is impossible to say that there will be no disruption, this situation is completely new for all of us.
“However I would say that I am confident that our early years settings, schools and colleges have worked incredibly hard to do all they can to risk assess and ensure that our children return to as safe an environment as is possible.
“We are yet to see how pupils respond, whether transport will be an issue and whether there will be any issues around notification through test and trace. But we are confident in planning for and managing a range of scenarios together.
“The main concern is probably the uncertainty around the local and national picture.
“We are doing really well in Wigan keeping our infection rates low and having the cooperation of our families and communities is vital to keep it low so that our children can return to their education and in turn allow their parents and carers to return to work.
“We are of course working on the assumption that our young people may have anxieties and we have trained more of our education and social care work force to be able to respond to this and to provide the emotional and well-being support to make that transition as smooth as possible.
“For some children that have had a long period out of school, they may find it more difficult to settle back in.”
Alison Rigby, the headteacher at St John Fisher Catholic High School in Beech Hill, struck a positive tone as the gates opened and a phased reintroduction of pupils got under way.
She said: "We are so pleased to welcome back our pupils and our new year seven this week. We have organised a phased return for our year groups to ensure a safe and sensible return to school.
"All our pupils will receive a welcome back and safety briefing and be shown our new routines to ensure they are kept safe. We are looking forward to getting our children back into the classroom and back to their learning.
"Our staff have worked relentlessly hard over the summer to ensure our curriculum is adapted to meet the ever-changing demands of the GCSE landscape and to make sure our children are back up-to-speed with their learning.
"St John Fisher is back in the business of educating young minds and developing decent people."
There is the possibility that if a Covid-19 infection breaks out at a borough school or involves staff and pupils then large numbers of people could find themselves having to self-isolate at very short notice during the autumn term.
However, while this has been discussed as a potential problem Ms Pealing says schools have already responded to an even trickier situation, namely the initial closure of their doors in March as the coronavirus first hit the country.
She said: “We have been through it before with very little notice at the start of the pandemic when little was known and we had less information.
“All of our child care and education providers were brilliant and responded both calmly and professionally as we worked our way through what we needed to do.
“We now have a lot more experience and information to be able to respond in any future cases, whether that be a ‘bubble’, school or borough issue we now have more robust plans in place in order to respond effectively.”
Throughout the months of the coronavirus pandemic there has been considerable debate about the effect of Covid-19 on education, with worries about children losing out on teaching and socialising time, the variation in experiences of lockdown for youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to their better-off peers and how schools at full capacity will be able to prevent the virus spreading.
Ms Pealing said her understanding of what has happened across the borough during lockdown emphasised the need to get schools open and children back with their teachers in a formal education setting.
She said: “It is our view that it is essential for our children and young people to be able to return to the classroom. There have been a variety of offers across the borough and this isn’t a consistent way to support all of our children to learn and develop.
“We need to not only be able to deliver teaching to our children but then to be able to check what they have learned, what they are struggling with, what they remember. This is much more challenging doing this whole school at a distance.
“While all of our schools remained open for a large part of the lockdown to certain groups of children, not all children attended school that we would have liked to see there.
“Safeguarding is something that schools support us to do every day and if they are not seeing some of our children, this puts additional pressures on our children and their families and other services. We are all aware of the increase in pressure within households during this period and how this can impact on children within a household.”
Ms Pealing said the town hall is continuing to learn from its experiences in lockdown so the borough will be able to cope if similar things happen in the future.
The council’s priorities for the autumn term include looking at how blended learning can help young people in Wigan and how pupils with special educational needs, as well as their families, are supported during the return to school and in the months to come.