While many people involved with schools stayed at home as the pandemic raged, those students and staff who remained in schools had to overcome their anxieties and adjust to new ways of working. But a positive attitude helped to see everyone through the difficult times, finds Zofia Niemtus
When the children came in, almost without exception, they were really subdued,” says Jennifer Knussen, head of Pitteuchar East Primary School in Fife. She is thinking back to the first national lockdown, in March 2020, when a handful of children came into school without their peers for the first time.
“They came in really anxious, clutching their packed lunches or their school bags,” Knussen recalls.
Their anxiety was understandable. While much of the country, and much of the world, stayed at home on government orders, these young people were still going into school because their parents were critical workers or because they were classed as “vulnerable”.
Despite all the talk of schools being “closed”, these pupils knew better: schools were very much open and were having to find a whole new way of operating.
In Pitteuchar, as in many other schools, the numbers of pupils attending were small for that initial provision: around 20 out of a school population of almost 400.
The low numbers meant they could be placed into small groups of between five and nine, Knussen explains, giving them a sense of safety and familiarity within the semi-deserted building.
The small groups also allowed those staff who were working in school – many of whom were teaching support assistants who had asked to be on the rota as they weren’t able to work from home – to make time to talk to the children about everything they were feeling.
“As a school, we’re fairly clued up on behaviour and relational approaches,” Knussen says. “And we had spoken about that as a team. We were expecting that there would be a high level of anxiety, not just about coming into school but for children whose parents work in the NHS, for example, who were worried about what might happen to them.
“So we had lots of discussions with students about naming those feelings, getting them out in the open and letting them know that it was OK to be anxious about this.”
Covid closures: An upbeat vibe in school
Staff also agreed in advance on the importance of ensuring a sense of positivity for the pupils during the experience.
“We’d discussed as a team that, no matter how we were feeling, we had to show the children that we were absolutely delighted to see them,” Knussen says.
The results of this approach were swift, she recalls, with pupils looking calmer “within half an hour” of arriving.
“You could see their little shoulders drop,” she says. “It was lovely. The response of the adults really made that happen.”
It was a similar picture 300 miles to the south, in Derby, at The Bemrose School, a secondary located right next to the city’s main hospital.
However, Natalie Campbell, the school’s learning director for modern foreign languages, says that there was a marked shift between the first school shutdown, in March 2020, and the second, in January 2021.
“In the first lockdown, those children were frightened,” she says. “We were there to reassure them, we were there to smile and to buoy them. We had around 40 coming in. They didn’t really know one another and they weren’t particularly friendly; they were there because their parents had to carry on working, doing deliveries, in hospitals and so on.”
But the second time around, she continues, the atmosphere was very different. “It was very ‘here we go again – we all know what we’re doing, we all know how to behave, let’s get on’. And, this time, the children had the friendships that they had built up during the first lockdown.”
Something else was different the second time, too. In January, the number of young people attending The Bemrose School increased to about 70. This mirrored the national picture of steadily increasing numbers in schools.
While this meant that some of the intimacy of the first lockdown was gone, it gave the students who had been there before a chance to come into their own, Campbell says. “They were jollying the new ones along, saying, ‘Come on, this is what we do.’ You could see them growing as leaders, actually, the ones that had got that confidence from the first time around. That support and care was really there for them in the first lockdown and we saw a lot more resilience in the second, taking the new ones under their wing, especially the Year 7s.”
To make the readjustment process easier for students, staff tried to maintain a sense of consistency across their key-worker and remote provision. As with many schools, the students attending Bemrose followed the same timetable as their peers learning from home, attending the same online live lessons and completing the same assignments, with a supervising member of staff, which worked “really well”, Campbell says.
And just as their classmates got to enjoy going for walks or getting more involved in cooking or crafting at home, the at-school cohort was given time for non-academic adventures – learning how to make masks in the first lockdown, for example, and building snowmen in the gardens when the temperature dropped in February.
These lighter moments were important for staff, too, as was encouraging a sense that they were all pulling together throughout the year, Campbell says. That involved staff checking in on those living alone and working together to collect large donations for the local food bank.
“We definitely have a sense of camaraderie, not just within the department but all colleagues; that’s been a massive thing,” Campbell explains.
All in this together
Simon Lomax, executive principal of the Midland Academies Trust, in Nuneaton, agrees that unity has been important – and adds that the staff coming into school throughout lockdown have needed support as much as the students have.
His school increased the frequency of staff surveys during the shutdown to ensure that the leadership understood how its workforce was feeling, and to check in about what support staff might need.
“They were feeling the pandemic, like everyone in the country, and everybody was obviously worried about each other’s health, and partners and families,” says Lomax.
But, he adds, despite their own personal challenges, staff at his school have been “absolutely fantastic”, rallying together to make the experience of attending school in lockdown “as close to normal as it could be”.
And, despite the initial feeling for students that it was “a bit odd” to be in school, there were some clear benefits.
“They enjoyed seeing friends because, I think, for the vast majority of students who are at home, that’s what they were missing,” he says.
Ultimately, the experience of being part of key worker provision has been positive for many students, Lomax says. But this would not have been possible without the dedication of staff.
Contrary to the narrative that schools have been closed, he has watched his team both in school and at home working hard throughout the pandemic.
“They have been tremendous,” he says. “Staff on site and at home have gone above and beyond the whole way through this.”
Zofia Niemtus is interim deputy commissioning editor at Tes
This article originally appeared in the 19 March 2021 issue under the headline “We all had to keep calm and carry on through lockdown”