Schools in England reopened on 8 March with new regular testing and mask-wearing in classrooms. Both have been recommended by the government for secondary schools, but are not compulsory, raising concerns among some teachers and students.
Two teachers and a pupil have spoken about their first week back at school.
‘It would be better if we had blended learning’
As pupils return to primary school after weeks of online learning, they bring with them “a different kind of stress” said Louise Neve, 51, a teacher in Hampshire. This week she has been frustrated by the safety guidance for junior schools as social distancing is largely unrealistic for younger classes. Her “bubble” of 28 pupils, aged eight and nine, are provided with hand gel and the classroom windows are opened an inch or two.
“Covid is now known to be airborne rather than mostly transmitted on surfaces,” said Neve. “It would be much better if we had blended learning, with smaller classes and children coming in on a rota.”
Neve, who is clinically vulnerable with several health conditions including asthma, was only recently vaccinated, “so it hasn’t kicked in yet”. She is worried about catching Covid from her pupils or passing the virus on to her 16-year-old daughter, who has a chronic post-viral condition. “If I were to pick it up from one of the asymptomatic children, I could then take it home to her,” she said. “It’s not as simple as saying the children don’t get ill: there’s a bigger picture that nobody at the top level seems to be looking at.”
The mood among teachers is mixed, she said. “To those who are vulnerable, it’s more of a worry because we’re in contact with larger numbers of children. But it’s a smaller workload than when teaching online.”
‘I imagined there would be more whispering with the masks on’
Joanne Humphrey, 50, head of English at a secondary school in Oxfordshire, also has “mixed feelings” about returning to the classroom. While she is glad to see her students again, she’s “exhausted” after a week of teaching through a face mask. “It’s difficult to project your voice,” she said. “I’m straining to listen to students if they put their hand up and say something. I don’t want to ask students to repeat themselves four times, because eventually they’ll give up and stop putting their hand up out of embarrassment.”
To Humphrey’s surprise, however, most of her students, who are in class sizes of 15 to 24, have complied with the new rule. “Motivating and controlling the class hasn’t been as bad as I thought. I imagined there would be more mischief and whispering with the masks on. Having said that, I teach year 9s and above – so maybe that’s more of a problem with the younger students.”
And it certainly beats online lessons, she added. “Our students have worked hard at home but the majority feel they learn better in person. Some have said they were nervous about asking questions online; they felt as though they’d look silly. They don’t feel that pressure in the classroom.”
‘It’s nearly impossible to social distance with 30 people in a class’
Imamul Ahmed, 18, a student in Birmingham, agrees that it’s better to be back in school. “Home learning was very stressful,” he said. “You can end up feeling alone, but at school the environment is completely different. There’s a sense of community you just don’t get with online teaching.”
Ahmed, who is studying biology, chemistry and 3D design at A-level and is hoping to become a dentist, said he had enjoyed seeing his friends but sometimes found wearing a mask all day difficult. “They can sometimes make it hard to concentrate and by the end of the day it feels like you can’t breathe.
“It’s also nearly impossible to social distance with 30 people in a class. It makes me laugh when you watch the news and they show a small group spaced out in a room – that’s not what it’s like.”
Ahmed said Covid testing at his school of 1,100 pupils had gone quite well so far. Lessons were cancelled on Monday and students were asked to come in, with time slots provided for each form group of about 20 to 30 students, with six to eight booths in the hall for them to use.
“I think it’s OK because we can do it ourselves,” he said. “There’s privacy to do your test but two people share a booth.” We had to provide our mobile number at the start so once you’re finished you leave the hall and your result is texted to you.”
As an A-level student, Ahmed is worried about exams especially after falling behind in November when he got Covid from school. “We’re not having traditional exams but we’re still having smaller ones. I’m revising as much as I can but it’s getting a bit overwhelming,” he said.
“So many of us had wishes and thoughts for our last year but it’s all just been thrown in the bin. Teachers are trying their best with the changing guidance from the government, but morale is low.”