THIS August, Catherine Lido’s five-year-old will undertake that familiar rite of passage – his first day of primary one. Some of the rituals will be the same – putting on the new uniform, packing up the school bag, the parade of pictures on Facebook timelines up and down the country. But this year much will be very different.
Last Thursday the anticipated date for the return of schools on August 11 was announced as part of Scotland’s road map through and out of the coronavirus crisis. A strategic framework for reopening schools was published simultaneously.
Kids like Lido’s son look likely to have some transition time from nursery to school next month, along with P7 children moving to secondary. But when he starts in August, class sizes may be made up of as few as 10 pupils, desks will be two metres apart and the usual play-based classroom approach will have to be rethought in compliance with social distancing.
Lunches and playtimes will be staggered, assemblies and shows off limits for now. Regular hand washing throughout the day will be part of school life.
“He will miss out on all the amazing transition work my older boy had, like the buddy system and graduated visits,” says Lido, a full-time lecturer in psychology and adult learning at Glasgow University.
Her older son is nine so she’s reassured that the committed staff at her “wonderful” local school will go above and beyond. But she can’t help worrying about the additional challenges posed by transitioning from lockdown and into schooling simultaneously.
“He has not been socialising for a long time, and he naturally gravitates toward being alone, which is translating into some serious shyness and not wanting to chat to people even when they come to the window,” she says. “He had progressed so far with nursery over the past two years and so yes, I am worried how he will find being away from me, and spending so much time with other children in a more structured learning environment.
“On the other hand his learning has actually advanced much more quickly with home learning.”
For the last few months she and her husband have been combining working from home with running a rough home school schedule from 10am - 3pm, supplementing school-provided links and resources with extras that catch their eye.
“Having much freedom means much more work on the part of parents to try to sort and organise learning,” says Lido, who has enjoyed using outdoor learning and cooking as part of her “school day”. But it has been a challenge despite her profession.
“You might think this would be easy for me to move into home learning. But I am not a trained school teacher, and it has been a real struggle.
“I am deeply worried about the educational inequalities that will emerge on the other side of this because parents with high ‘educational capital’ – qualifications and experience – will have been in a better position to facilitate learning of their children than parents without such qualifications or experience.”
She is worried too about the ongoing impact on her own work. “It would be great to have the kids go back to school as much as possible, simply given the demands on me as university and my projects pick up speed again,” she admits. “But I think we all need to exercise a bit of patience and compassion towards schools, teachers and parents trying to manage the best we can in difficult circumstances. I think policy-makers are genuinely feeling the same strain.”
Anna – who doesn’t want to give her full name – has two children in P5 and P2. She works for a law firm, her husband as a chartered surveyor is a feeling a bit less understanding. As the couple have both have been furloughed, schooling has not been an issue. Yet.
“I can see almost all my close friends are finding it really challenging and stressful,” she says. “I am very worried about how this will work when we return to our jobs, especially as my husband cannot work from home as he physically needs to inspect properties. I suspect he will be back at work soon, and all of this will therefore fall to me.
“I have already asked the head of education at my local authority for assurances that siblings will not be expected to attend school on different days or times, which would make this even more difficult.
“He has said they will ‘be as flexible as we can be’ but hasn’t offered any guarantees, which worries me. Ensuring siblings are in school at the same time could be the difference between parents being able to reduce their hours to part time, or having to give up their jobs entirely.
“I believe this will set back gender equality significantly as it will be mainly the mothers who pick up the childcare slack, drop their hours or even give up their jobs entirely. Welcome back to the 1950s.”
WORRIES are even greater for those with more challenges to cope with. Single parents’ ability to work could be further curtailed, putting them at even greater risk of poverty.
Charities such as One Parent Families Scotland stress how essential it is that the diversity of families – one in four of which is headed by a single parent – is factored into planning. “It’s important to remember that 91% of single parents are women,” adds Satwat Rehman, the charity’s chief executive.
Some parents of children with additional needs and disabilities told the Sunday National they felt “abandoned” and were finding the additional challenges without support difficult to take.
And while many news reports have focused on understandable parental fears about the safety of return, some admitted they felt differently.
Anna claims she’d favour finding ways to avoid the “heartbreak” of asking children to socially distance, though she admits that she might feel differently if members of her family were in more high risk groups.
She says: “I did hope that by the time schools did go back in August, the virus might be suppressed enough, and that track trace and isolate would be successful enough that school kids would not need to social distance and that school would be back to normal.
“It’s my belief that a life lived worrying about every tiny risk is not a life at all. We’d never leave the house again if we lived that way.”
A couple weeks ago, a picture of tiny French children playing in chalk drawn squares to keep them apart sent a collective shiver up the spines of many parents. But elsewhere there are hopeful signs. In Denmark, where primary schools have been closed for a month, cases have dropped again after an initial small rise. Secondary pupils returned last week and scientists advised it was safe for to reduce distancing to one metre.
On Friday a review of evidence by UCL and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that children were half as likely to catch the virus as adults. Other reports have been less reassuring.
While the Scottish Government paper has recommended distancing of two metres, its strategic paper states that implementing distancing measures was the majority, but not unanimous view, of the chief medical officer’s Advisory Group.
Jason Leitch, Scotland’s clinical director, told the Sunday National that while all its planning was for two metres social distancing, it would be watching the science with interest.
“It appears that it infects everybody but children don’t get as sick,” he says.
“So the public health people are not as worried about children transferring the virus as we are about adults transferring the virus.
“Denmark has moved social distancing down to a metre, Australia is 1.5 metres and we’ll follow that with great interest because it has implications for public transport and in schools. But we are planning on the basis that schools have to, as far as possible, physical distance.”
Others, while wanting reassurance that safety can be guaranteed, find it hard to see how distancing won’t impact on education.
Craig Beaton teaches English at a Glasgow secondary, his wife teaches drama and they have an eight-year-old daughter, Niamh, who they are currently teaching from home. Niamh cannot wait to go back to school with her friends, but Beaton is worried about the logistics.
“Teachers will now go back some time in June,” he says. “But Niamh’s primary school won’t go back and we don’t have someone we can turn to and rely on to look after her and nor is it appropriate to do so.”
THE key worker scheme will only have a finite amount of space, he points out. And while the Educational Recovery Group might have creative ideas about expanding the school estate with the help of church halls or university buildings, pressures are likely to be significant.
He worries too about the impact on teaching methods. “Things are going to be very different in the classroom and I don’t think we should under-estimate that,” he says.
“Years ago there was a lot of teachers standing at the front and talking and that happens rarely now. My fear is we go back to that. In Glasgow there has been a huge investment in cooperative learning – it’s about open questioning, positive reinforcement and delivering learning in different ways.
“How does Niamh’s teacher – how do I – properly teach young people if I can’t sit down next to them and read what they’ve done and talk to them one-to-one and say: ‘That’s brilliant. But you know what you need to do just to sharpen up your writing a little bit? Try this’ and model things with them.
“For me it feels vital in a classroom, but for a period of time that won’t be possible.
“The relationship between the pupil and the teacher is key – if you have a pupil’s trust, if you know their strengths and what they need help and support with, you have a bond. That is going to be a big challenge.”
No-one, it seems, has easy answers to any of it. As one parent says: “It’s horrible for everyone making decisions on this.” But all are agreed – whatever your view, there’s an awful lot at stake.