OPINION: Teaching’s new normal: Risk assessing toilet requests and wiping down pencil sharpeners

The return to school has seen teachers and staff deal with new challenges as they put the safety of

The return to school has seen teachers and staff deal with new challenges as they put the safety of pupils first - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Our Secret Teacher says staff are getting used to changing times at school

A few weeks have passed, and we are back into the swing of school life. In contrast to the outside world of political arguments and inadequate tests, the world inside the classroom is calm and positive. The novelty of being together again has not worn off, and this has infused our days with a sense of gladness.

The children have adapted to new routines well, and uncomplainingly fall in with their staggered entrances and exits, and the endless handwashing. They have been quite cheerful about sitting in rows and are delighted by the frequency with which we work outside in the September sunshine.

It feels like these are the halcyon days of the term.

The early pangs of separation that some children experienced seem to have passed, and although a couple of children choose to wear masks at school, I am surprised by the lack of anxiety that they show. What would have looked incongruous a few months ago is readily accepted without comment as normal by the rest of the class.

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Other adjustments are taking longer for the children to get used to.

By the end of each week, their tiredness is obvious from the sea of washed out faces. It will take time for them to build up their stamina, and we are only just starting to introduce a fuller timetable.

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Some children have fallen out of the habit of following other people’s timings. While conformity might not always be a desirable trait, an element of it is needed for mainstream classrooms to run smoothly. Months of having the freedom to choose how long they could focus on an activity is a tough habit to give up. They are aware of their lack of agency and are resisting having a time limit imposed on them.

In an ideal world, I would let them go at their own pace, spending as long as they choose on tasks that absorb them. Tough though homeschooling could be, this was one of its highlights: letting children take the lead on how long they wanted or needed. But with 30 children, each with less freedom than in usual school life, individual agendas are not workable. I build in slots each day for pupils to take some extra time on the learning that motivates them, but the lesson has to move on.

On the whole though, it is astonishing how resilient the children have been, and how willing they are to give most things their best go.

For us as staff, this has been a period of adjustment too. There are some things we are missing: the key one being each other. Whilst social distancing

in classrooms can only work in a limited way, we are encouraged to keep our distance from colleagues. Extra staffrooms mean that we are spread out, and have inadvertently formed into groups, barely crossing paths with staff in different years. Similarly to many professions, our meetings are online and our conversations take place through email.

We share the children’s exhaustion when Friday comes. I have always found teaching to be a more tiring job than others I did before, but with our increased levels of vigilance, it is strangely draining. No decision can be taken lightly and the simplest of requests: to go to the toilet, to sharpen a pencil, takes a quick mental risk assessment before I can answer. Have I double checked the corridor is clear? Did I remind them to sanitise before touching handles? Did I use anti-bacterial wipes on the sharpeners after the last child?

Our teaching assistants, midday supervisors and support staff are working flat out, with the additional admin and cleaning demands of the situation increasing their workload.

Office staff are fielding many calls from worried parents- initially to seek reassurance that we were following safe practices at school, but more commonly now to seek advice about testing. Whilst we welcome conversations with families, particularly when we are so limited in seeing them, we often don’t know the answers about medical issues.

We wear PPE when delivering first aid. (But as the majority of primary school first aid consists of offering wet paper towels and ice packs, this sometimes seems like overkill!)

It now feels like a huge responsibility to decide when to ring home with a poorly child. Most children find it difficult to accurately assess how unwell they’re feeling: even a blocked nose and mild headache can feel very miserable to them.

Whilst we can take pupils’ temperature and see if they are coughing, there is a grey area in which we are just not sure. We want to keep everyone safe, but at the same time, we don’t want to deprive children of school unnecessarily.

So for teachers, as well as for parents, we will continue to make our best judgments. And to be grateful for each healthy school day.

The Secret Teacher has been a primary school teacher in East Anglia for more than 15 years

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