While the impact of coronavirus means most schools are still unsure of when they may set foot back in school, for those in other parts of the world school life has returned.
In Denmark, for example, primary schools have been back for almost two weeks while schools in China and Taiwan have also been returning to classes.
However, the reality is that normal school life is a long way off right now: “This is not normal teaching,” says Shirley Jacobsen, head of the International Primary School at Rygaards International School in Copenhagen, Denmark.
For one thing, there’s no school bell. “There would be no point,” she says, explaining that classes and teachers are now having staggered lunch breaks and class times to avoid the risk of too many people being on break or moving through the school at the same time.
Adapt and overcome
Perhaps more fundamental, though, is how lesson delivery has had to change. Because the new rules means teachers can only teach one class in one room – not go between classes – teachers have to deliver one another’s lessons.
“Our music teacher, for example, can only deliver to Year 6 pupils. So other teachers have to deliver her lessons to other year groups,” says Jacobsen.
Classes are also far smaller, with most split into two and taught in rotas between staff, while children are required to engage in a far more “traditional” form of lesson in which they sit and face the front, with no time for more tactile engagement or carpet time that many primary settings are used to.
“We have to give each child an allocated desk where they have to sit all day so we reduce the risk of them getting too close to one another,” adds Jacobsen.
There is much more emphasis on self-marking, too, as teachers are not able to take in exercise books.
The school day is also significantly amended, with Dominic Maher, Head of International at Skt Josef’s International School in Roskilde, Denmark, explaining that they now stagger the school day so children arrive in different 15-minute blocks.
“We split the start of school day into three 'windows’ for the different classes to come in as part of different blocks to avoid overcrowding around school – and when parents arrive they have to drop at the gate, they can’t walk to the classroom to say goodbye.”
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Wash your hands, again
Furthermore, handwashing is central to the day, as it was in the period before lockdown.
“We’ve brought in additional handwashing facilities so children have to wash hands before entering school and then throughout the day – when they change room, before the eat, after they eat, when they come in from playtime and so on…They wash their hands six to eight times,” says Maher.
This also has a knock-on effect on how other items in a school are used: art supplies, scissors and colouring pencils are now either removed or children are required to bring their own that they can’t share.
Measures in other parts of the world are perhaps even more extreme, as Simon McRoberts, International Head of Secondary at Nord Anglia Chinese International School Shanghai, explains.
“All staff and students have their temperatures taken before entering the school site. We have installed a new system at our entrance to record temperatures and any person displaying a temperature above 37.3 degrees is taken for further temperature checks,” he explains.
“On entering our building, we have installed, at strategic points, hand sanitisation stations and bins for discarded masks. We have also installed two isolation areas should anyone be taken ill during the course of the day.”
Anyone who has worked with young children can imagine how hard some of them may find all of this – from constantly washing hands to not being able to play with friends.
As a result of the stringent new measures, Jacobsen has reduced the school day to finish at 2pm, so the chance of the rules starting to feel oppressive is minimised.
Maher says his school has tried a different tack: having more lessons outdoors, which is not just safer but, he argues, is also more engaging and fun.
“After remote learning at home, when there was a huge requirement for technology, now we are back at school [and] we are enjoying doing more outside things, almost an old-school approach,” he says.
“I think it is nice, particularly for younger classes to get outside to do these things and I can definitely see that they need to run…There is a lot of talk about the number of hours of exercise children get a week and this is another way to get that in for children.”
It very much appears that innovation is at the heart of much of how schools have had to adapt to post-lockdown opening, from library book distribution to games children can play together.
“We can’t have children going to the library and taking out books as normal,” says Jacobsen. “So the librarian has come up with a system for putting books in boxes that are delivered to a specific class. Once they have used them they are then returned to the box and let for week so we know they are safe again.”
Similarly, teachers have been helping children devise fun, no-contact games, such as having to mirror one another, or relay races where the changeover happens 2 metres apart.
Other games are proving tricky to decide if they fit within the rules of safe play – can a Frisbee be thrown between people if it’s been thoroughly cleaned first? It’s not clear exactly what the rules are on such specific questions and these are the niche questions that schools – and health authorities – will have to unpick as schools encounter them.
It's worth noting that in Denmark, many schools combine primary and secondary at the same location. This means that for primary schools, it is easier to take advantage of the extra space the currently empty secondary schools provide to host split-class lessons.
Other schools in other nations – such as the UK – will largely not have this luxury. However, as Jacobsen points out, it may be that there are other ways around this, from using local amenities such as village halls, or doing more lessons outside across the day.
Structure and ice creams
Whatever schools come up with to try to make schools as safe and engaging for children as possible, one early positive from the Danish and Chinese schools is the way in which both students and staff have adapted to the changes and got on with the situation.
“I think children generally like routines and structures, so this actually works really well for a number of children. It’s very predictable – they know what they are doing,” says Maher.
Meanwhile, for McRoberts in China, he says the way staff have adapted to the new requirements and the challenges of teaching has proved positive.
"We have learned many new skills along the way as a staff body. We are now much more confident with underused software that we had at our disposal and I am sure we will continue to use this as part of our teaching repertoire,” he explains.
“This process has also strengthened our collegiality: staff have displayed a great willingness and desire to support each other.”
But what about staff safety?
Maher explains that staff were brought into a school one day before reopening to help them see the new measures outlined above and also other measures in place to keep them safe.
“We wanted to ensure teachers were comfortable in knowing they were coming to a safe workplace," he explains. “So, for example, through the kitchen area there is tape on the floor so we go in one direction and don’t have to bump into each other; there is hand sanitiser at the fridge and the microwave and we have to sanitise before we get a coffee and after.
“So we went through all that and the response I’ve seen has been they were happy and comfortable to return to work.”
As nations try to return to normal, rules will vary and requirements will shift. Schools cannot follow a one-size-fits-all model to reopen.
But the feeling of being at school again is worth all the new rules, says Maher: “It’s fantastic to be back.”
Dan Worth is acting deputy commissioning editor at Tes