Trepidation, anxiety and excitement ahead of schools returning to classrooms across Leeds

Schooling returns to classrooms next week after what has been almost a year of lockdowns, cancelled exams, disruption and home-schooling.

Friday, 5th March 2021, 7:26 am

Since the beginning of the first lockdown, imposed last March, it will be the first time that all pupils are being called out on the register, yet there is a mixed reaction to the return from schools and teaching unions.

However, a leading Public Health England (PHE) expert said that the country is now in a "much better place" to reopen schools to children during the pandemic.

In a three day series, the Yorkshire Evening Post will be hearing from mainstream and special needs schools, union representatives and parents who have battled the demands of day to day life with home-schooling.

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Rachel Law, head of the Rainbow Base provision at Richmond Hill school.

It comes amid warnings that the education recovery is not sustainable due to extra workloads and pressures on teachers.

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Schools in Leeds set to open over the summer holidays to help students catch up ...

General secretary Paul Whiteman said: "These figures prove once and for all that schools are not and have never been closed. Teachers and school leaders have in fact been working harder than ever to juggle the demands of remote teaching for pupils at home, while also caring for those vulnerable and key worker children in school. The worry is that the workload and pressure on school staff at the moment is simply unsustainable - and could threaten the education recovery to come."

A special needs school in Leeds that has remained open to all pupils under the current lockdown said Monday was a mixture of excitement and apprehension due to pressure to "get it right".

Anna Mackenzie, headteacher at Richmond Hill and Rachel Law.

The school's risk assessment is now at 80 pages long and has to be frequently re-written in response to ever-changing guideline and government restrictions. There is also concern with how much the pupils, who have complex communication and/or behaviour issues, will have fallen behind with their progress.

Academic teaching is not the priority, said Rachel Law, head of the Rainbow Base provision at Richmond Hill Primary. For the rest of term, she says the focus is getting children to put their own coats on and go to the toilet.

She said: "There is a mixture of excitement and apprehension. We don't know what we will get but there is excitement because we love the children and have missed them, there is no doubt about that.

"We feel a little bit like we have had to grieve for what we have lost, not a loved one, but the progress we had made as a school, we had some huge progress from our children. We have tried our best to make sure the gap does not widen hugely but it is hard to know that all the work we did in autumn, we are going to have to do it again."

Janet Sheriff, headteacher at Prince Henry Grammar School at Otley.

That includes basic skills such as going to the toilet, putting on their own shoes and coats and communicating with other people.

Miss Law added: "That will continue for at least the rest of the term. Academia, for two thirds, is not where it is right now. It is a case of building up basic skills to communicate wants and needs."

She said the relief for parents that full-time school is re-starting is "unbelievably important".

For example, she said one pupil was referred to them with "extremely challenging behaviour" which saw him causing serious injuries to other children and staff. It took Rainbow Base a year, but by last January, they had got to the point where he hardly needed 1-2-1 supervision and was doing "incredibly well" due to the routine, structures and boundaries that were set.

Outdoor provision for pupils the Rainbow Base.

However, due to lockdown, part-time school, closures due to weather and collapsing school bubbles the year two boy's behaviour is again "very challenging".

Miss Law added: "For parents that have had part-time provision, it is a huge thing for them to get that routine and structure back. Any amount of trepidation will disappear as soon as the first child walks through the door and we leap into action."

Whilst not applicable to primary or special needs schools, some of the new safety measures are a cause for concern with the Leeds branch of the National Educational Union (NEU).

A representative said: "The policy on mask wearing in class-rooms in high schools and colleges, it is unclear in terms of mask wearing refusers. Also, increased testing is welcomed for pupils and their families but lateral flow tests are very inaccurate, just over 50 per cent. We have had reports of a negative lateral flow followed by a positive PCR results so we are concerned that the lateral flow will give a false sense of confidence that they are not going to be spreading the virus

"And there is also the question of those children who refuse to have these tests, and children and parents who refuse to corporate with schools. But,obviously, it is better to have these than no other tests, but we do not want that false confidence. We want people to be following the rules as closely as possible."

They added that the union would have preferred schools to have staggered start and finish times and encouraged use of the NEU’s national COVID map which enables schools, colleges and early years staff to see COVID case numbers in their school’s locality, which would then form the school’s risk assessment.

At Prince Henry's Grammar School at Otley, staff have been reviewing the previous re-opening policies devised for the last two lockdowns and will be implementing the testing and mask wearing elements.

But, head-teacher, Janet Sheriff said teachers being offered the vaccine would have been welcomed and given "a greater degree of confidence to the school community".

However, she told the Yorkshire Evening Post there was a real excitement about students coming back.

She said: "There is a real positivity with the road map that things are going to get back to normal and we can see a way out of the current situation. The teaching profession, or anyone working in education, is about working with children and young people to really make a difference. Whilst everybody has really adapted and developed a new range of skills, it is just not the same as being in the building and interacting in all of these other ways, not just teaching an academic curriculum."

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