Back to school: Advice on how to handle the big return

It's a big week for parents and children across the country - here are ways to handle it. Credit: PA

It's a big week for parents up and down the UK as children in England and Wales begin to return to a very different school day to the one they are used to.

Pupils in Scotland and Northern Ireland returned last month.

Many parents are keen to have their children back in school as soon as possible, but others reserve some very understandable concerns in these uncertain times.

  • Child wellbeing expert Beth Kerr has her top tips:

As the coronavirus pandemic looks certain to stretch into the winter months, ITV News spoke to John Jolly, the CEO of charity Parentkind, which advises parents on home and school education. He told us a bit about what parents can expect, how they can prepare and what challenges schools faces over the coming weeks.

What are the main things parents and other guardians need be aware of when they’re preparing children to go to a very different classroom?

Well, school isn’t going to be like it was before – that’s a given.

Exactly how each school will differ from before will be set out in guidelines that would have been sent to all parents by now.

It is vital parents go through those with great care and ensure their children are well versed in what is expected of them on a daily basis.

Arrangements will have been made for drop-offs and collections, lunch time, and of course classroom set-ups.

Listen to the full conversation with John Jolly below

“It’s a new school day and a new way of working for teachers as well,” Mr Jolly said, warning patience will be needed as everyone gets used to the new way.

A big shock for children looking forward to socialising with certain friends again may be that they are more limited in who they can spend time with.

Given the potential for bubbles and staggered time in the playground, it could be that not everyone gets to see some friends as much as they’d be used to. How will social distancing work?

Social distancing will be a concern.

There will be a focus on what the arrangements are for walking around corridors and going into the bathroom.

In some schools in Northern Ireland, for example, children are being sat in alphabetical order and socially distanced from others.

All schools are doing something slightly different, so it is important to talk to children about how the school day will be different. Is wearing a face mask mandatory or just advised?

Scots pupils were found to be empathetic towards immigrants Credit: Ben Birchall/PA

It depends where in the UK you are.

In Scotland, it is mandatory for secondary school pupils in corridors and common areas - likewise in Northern Ireland.

In England, the guidance is that it’s not mandatory except for areas in local lockdown – but this is at the discretion of local authorities.

Over in Wales, they are recommending people do but the decision is ultimately in the hands of schools and local authorities.

There is no expectation in any part of the UK for pupils to wear masks in the classroom.

So, the simple answer here is to check what your school is saying.

What have parents been telling you that worries them most about the return?

Based on a number of surveys carried out over the past three months, Mr Jolly said parents worry about hygiene arrangements, social distancing in school and what the day will look like for their children.

“A lot of concern over what the school day actually looks like and whether (there is an) affect on young children,” he said.

Schools have been been required to introduce new measures ahead of the autumn term Credit: Danny Lawson/PA

There is a need for more reassurance and schools will have to work hard to convince parents it is safe to go back, particularly for those whose relatives are shielding.

“It’s a really mixed picture,” he added.

“I would say 75% of parents are keen to get their children back to school, they think it’s a great idea and want to get them back in from the second they’re back open.

“I think parents have been the real heroes of this as they try to manage home-schooling, often trying to work on the same computer to do their day job.

“To juggle all of that has been pretty amazing.”

But it has been a challenge and Mr Jolly said many children have not been doing a full school day at home - with some clocking less than three hours.

Will parents be fined for not returning their child to school?

Students wash their hands before entering class Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Again, it depends where you live.

You won’t be fined in Northern Ireland or Wales but you could, technically, in England.

The message from Boris Johnson and education ministers has been that school is mandatory and fines will be back in place in September.

But Mr Jolly says that doesn’t necessarily mean schools will be enacting penalties.

“I talk to schoolteachers, head teachers, up and down the country and the vast majority of those say they are not intending to implement fines in the next school term,” he said.

“They are very sympathetic to parents.”

Their focus is to reassure parents over the school’s safety, he added.

According to a survey, he said 70% of parents wanted the right to decide if their child returns to school or not.

From parents with children with special education needs or disabilities, that figure goes up to 90%

We’ve also recently seen the bungled delivery of 2020’s exam results. This has been a remarkably unsettled time for education, which is confusing and worrying for those with children at school. Do you think schools are ready for this next step or does more chaos await?

There are lots of lessons to learn, Mr Jolly said, although he said he hopes it can now be put behind us.

No decision has been taken in terms of next year’s exams yet.

Exam and education bodies are all looking at this to see how they can adapt, taking into account that children have lost so much of their education, Mr Jolly said.

“There are lots of questions and no answers at the moment,” he said.

Are schools ready for this big return?

Pupils on the first day back to school at Charles Dickens Primary School in London Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Schools comes in all shapes and sizes and some are more ready that others.

“I think most schools will be absolutely ready to bring all children back,” Mr Jolly said.

“I don’t think that is so much of an issue - I think what is an issue is whether they will continue to be open, if there is a local outbreak…”

And so what happens if there is a case confirmed in the school?

“Guidance from the government says the school needs to be in contact with track and trace arrangements and that procedures will be in place to look at who needs to isolate,” Mr Jolly said.

That might involve certain groups in particular bubbles but it all depends on how widespread within the school it is.

They will decide what action will need to be taken based on contact information.

As a last resort, the school could be closed.

But how this all plays out remains to be seen.

“We will see over the winter months areas in lockdown and what that will mean for schools,” Mr Jolly added.

Last week, the government announced a “rota system” - limiting the number of pupils going to secondary schools at any one time - as a potential measure for local lockdown zones.

Could this cause serious childcare issues if a children are told to stay away from school in the event of any kind of outbreak?

This is a big difficult for parents, Mr Jolly said, referencing a survey in which a “significant number” of parents say they would not be able to manage childcare while juggling work commitments.

What advice can you give to parents?

Schools are enforcing regulations based on detailed guidance from the government, Mr Jolly said, and it is vital everyone is aware of all the new rules in their school.

Make sure you understand what the arrangements are and go through these thoroughly with your children.

One bit of advice is make sure you understand what arrangements are going back to school – talk through children.