Has it really only been 20 days?
It feels like at least a year ago since the Prime Minister announced that, should all the right things be in place, schools would be opening to years 6, 1 and Reception from the first of June (and announced the following day that all EYFS children would be returning to their settings at the same time). Just days before the announcement I had been involved in a discussion where I had said that whenever schools went back I hoped that the government would make an announcement in plenty of time and give leaders very clear guidance and sufficient time to plan so that the opening of schools to the wider community would be done in collaboration with leaders and that they would feel well prepared.
I think it would be fair to say that I didn’t get quite what I wished for.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that I think it is too soon to be opening the doors to all EYFS, Y1 and Y6. In certain parts of the country, we are told that the peak of the pandemic has not yet been reached. On Thursday we were told that track and trace would be operational by the 1st of June and that tests for under 5s would become available. But by Friday we were already being told that track and trace had run into difficulty and parents of four year olds were reporting difficulty in getting their children tested. So the “five tests” don’t yet appear to have been fully met. 60 local authorities have now publicly expressed support for their schools and settings who need to delay wider opening and some have said that their schools and settings will not open for at least another two weeks, in accordance with the guidance issued by the Independent SAGE Committee.
Sending our youngest children back first was always going to be a challenge. They can not socially distance by the Government’s own admission but during the education parliamentary select committee meeting this week, the schools' minister told us that teachers who may be vulnerable are safe to return to school providing that they maintain social distancing, and later that day the Prime Minister announced that it was safe to be in school with social distancing. Neither of them appears to have read their own guidance to schools and settings. This shouldn’t surprise me as a DFE advisor on the helpline admitted that she hadn’t read it during a phone call earlier in the week.
So, it’s no wonder there has been some confusion in the sector. I’m not going to go over old ground here, I’ve written about the confusion caused by late publications, mixed and often confusing messages and the complexities faced by leaders and teachers all over the country. What I find myself reflecting on this morning, in the quiet before everyone wakes up, is the sheer scale of the task leaders have faced, how tremendously they have responded and what the next phase of this pandemic might be like for those of us in education.
The last three weeks have passed by in a blur of phone calls, emails, zoom chats, webinars, interviews, articles, writing letters, draft documentation and reviews, risk assessments, recovery plans. I feel as if I have barely seen my family and I have been at home with them 24/7. I can’t imagine what it has been like for those working in schools and settings, but I know from the discussions I have had that there’s been a lot of reading, interpreting, planning, communicating with parents, staff, local authorities, ordering necessary equipment to keep safe, risk assessing, rewriting plans, moving furniture, ordering resources, training, reflecting and a huge amount of anxiety and worry. In the midst of all this, a huge media storm with some people apparently more forgiving of a high profile senior advisor breaking his own lockdown rules, allegedly in the interests of his child’s safety, than of teachers expressing concern for the safety of the children in their schools.
All over the country, people have been pulling together to try to support each other to do their best to make a very difficult situation as safe and positive as possible for their children, parents and carers, and staff. They won’t all have got it right. It is easy to criticise from an external perspective. I have seen some classrooms which are set up for Early Years which really worry me in terms of children’s well being and mental health, not to mention the quality of education which will be provided by the restrictions imposed. I’ve also seen some people stating that because bubbles are so difficult to run in EY they are abandoning the idea and carrying on as normal. Both these approaches worry me a great deal. But I can understand the thinking behind them. All I can do as an external advisor is discuss, advise and support as much as possible.
Ultimately, the decisions made about the way schools and settings run in the next few weeks have to rest with leaders. I hope the resources and support provided have been helpful, but ultimately the decisions rest with them. The weight of these decisions must be enormous and I take my hat off to every single leader, teacher, childminder, and manager who has been working so hard to make this work. Every setting and school is unique, which is why no guidance from the government could ever cover all the possibilities. Some people have found the planning process simple and straightforward, but many have not. It is easy to judge and say, “why don’t you…?” But we don’t know people’s unique circumstances.
Similarly, I have seen people commenting on social media and in the news about parents’ choice to return their children to school. I would urge everyone to remember that choice is a luxury. Many do not have a choice. I am very grateful that my children are not in the year groups expected to return and I feel for any parent who is facing the dilemma of whether to send their child in on Monday morning if their school or setting is open. I am also grateful that they are at an age where they are able to work independently some of the time. But, for many families, there is no choice at all. For the key workers who have been sending their children in all along, for the parents who are told they must return to work on Monday or face losing their job or for the parents who are struggling to work at home with small children who require a considerable amount of help and support, there is no choice.
Some face an uncertain future. The pandemic has taken our source of income and so we face a new sort of life, which might not be the kind we had planned. Major life changes might be ahead of us as a result. Some people’s life may appear to be rosy on the outside, but they may have hidden illnesses which mean that, even when the lockdown restrictions start to ease, their life will still not resemble any sort of normal. Many families have lost loved ones and will have not been allowed the small solace of the usual rituals which we put in place to comfort those grieving. I can not imagine the heartbreak they are suffering.
On the surface, people may appear to be fine, but we shouldn’t underestimate the impact that the last few months have had on us all, and we shouldn’t expect that everything will just return to normal as soon as the doors open again. Some children and families will be ready to tell their stories straight away, and some may not tell their stories for a very long time. We should try to ensure that we provide routines and stability for ourselves and for those we work with as we adjust to the next phase of what is going to be a very long journey. There will be days when it will feel as if things are getting better, and there will be days where it will feel as if nothing will ever be normal again.
Everyone’s situation is different and unique. We could all do with reflecting on this, I include myself here. It’s easy to judge without knowing the full story. I have been vocal in my belief that the guidance issued lacks clarity and cohesion, and that reopening feels rushed. I know some people may have taken that criticism personally because they have made the guidance work. That’s not my intention. My criticism is of the lack of leadership, clear guidance, and understanding of the sector from central government, not of the people who are making it work on the ground.
Whatever the coming week brings you, whether you are going into your setting or school for the first time since March, shielding at home, searching for a new role, home educating, working from home, adjusting to a different sort of retirement from the one you had planned or living with loss, I hope you remember that as well as being kind to others, you also need to be kind to yourself. Stay safe.