“We don’t want it to feel like a hospital ward” - Hillcrest Academy goes back to school after COVID lockdown

After months at home, barely seeing friends, trying to learn at the kitchen table - some going without food - pupils across Leeds go back to school next week following the coronavirus lockdown which shut classrooms overnight back in March.

By Emma Ryan
Saturday, 5th September 2020, 6:00 am

While the general consensus is that teachers and youngsters are eager to get back to some kind of normality - it won’t be quite as normal.

Like every other primary and secondary school across the city, Hillcrest Academy near Chapeltown and Harehills, has had to react to constantly changing guidelines and come up with much more than first term lesson plans.

Sam Done, Hillcrest’s principal, said: “We as a trust (Hillcrest is under the Gorse Academies Trust umbrella), are quite forward thinking and planned a 300 element risk assessment. We have a 56 page re-opening plan with maps and the routes that children and adults will take.

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Miss Khalil reception teacher putting pencils and pens etc into each individual child packages.

“That is something we have done individually. I have even timed how long it will take to get a class of children to wash their hands and get them into the building.”

From entering the school gates on Monday the routine will be different.

Nursery children start at 8.30am, reception at 8.55. They go to the right of the building where new outdoor handwashing sinks have been installed. Early years get to their classroom through an outside door which opens onto an outdoor play area which features a socially distanced story-time area. There are still displays on the wall and colourful classrooms, but to stop sharing and to limit contact of objects, each child has their own named pack with pencils, colouring pens, paper, scissors, glue and playdough.

Further round the building, older children will line up in the main playground where each class has its own area before being taken to their classrooms where they will stay for the school day. They have a number to stand on in the playground and is the same number which shows where they sit in the classroom.

Guidelines on social distancing have been implemented at Hillcrest.

Break and lunch times are staggered and there are subtle reminder signs dotted around school about social distancing and handwashing. Desks have also been re-arranged so they are forward facing and children sit shoulder to shoulder. A masked line of tape runs down the centre of the desk to encourage pupils to stick to their own side.

Mr Done said: “The message we want to get across is that it is clinical in terms of hygiene, but, as least clinical as possible in terms of the feel inside the building.

“We could have used hazard tape but used masking tape. It is a message that needs to be there all the time but still feel like a classroom for their own well-being. We don’t want it to feel like a hospital ward.”

In case someone at school develops COVID symptoms there are grab bags of PPE equipment and areas of school that have been designated isolation suites.

Sam Done, principal at Hillcrest Academy, is ready to welcome back the school's 453 pupils on Monday.

While school has been open to key worker children during lockdown and adapted safety strategies over that time, it has taken two weeks to prepare plans for the return of the whole school cohort of 453.

The curriculum will start as originally planned with a ‘recovery curriculum’ in place if children need to catch up or extra help. That means the school day won’t be all about English and maths.

Mr Done explained: “Our children thrive on a rich and varied curriculum. If they don’t have these life experiences they will have nothing to write about. The wider curriculum is very important, we will make sure that they have as many of these as they need.”

He cites having to close down Hillcrest on government instruction as “one of the worst days of my teaching career”. There was fear for the children, families and the community that Hillcrest serves.

Sam Done shows how the classroom layouts have been changed to meet government instructions while keeping the colour and vibrancy of pupils' work.

But, he says he does not worry for the loss of education as transformation of struggling schools is the daily bread for Gorse and coming back to school will be a welcome break for some children who live in chaos, poverty and deprivation.

He said: “A lot of schools have reacted badly or upset about lockdown because of the damage to education. We very quickly put things in place in terms of online lessons and that has been positive for us. But with this demographic we have children that arrive half way through the year and families moving in and out of the area.

“We are quite familiar with recovery programmes. We serve communities that are deprived and one of our big areas of concern has been black and minority ethnic (BAME) as a significant majority of pupils and families are from BAME backgrounds.

“But Monday, is the day that we have been working towards, when we can open the whole school, not have any more lost learning time, to reinstate the school part of education and where children spend time with their friends.

“It is an opportunity to check on mental health, well-being and families. We have some children that live in abject poverty, they live in chaos, so coming back to a warm, inviting classroom is really important.”

A message from the Editor:

Hillcrest plans to use its outside space as much as possible when children return back to school.

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Thank you

Laura Collins