Although much of the country has come to a standstill during the latest national lockdown, schools like St Teresa’s in Hartlepool are a hive of activity.
The primary school opened its doors to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers on Tuesday, January 4th, and has been busy ever since.
“We didn’t take a breath after the government made its U-turn about all school kids returning – we opened straight away” said Mary Frain, who has been Headteacher at St Teresa’s for the last 9 years.
She said: “We had every single parent’s email from the last lockdown, so we contacted them quickly and organised who needed places.
“It was very hectic, but we managed.”
The school, located on Callander Road, normally holds 300 pupils, and an additional 40 children in the nursery. Currently, around a third of those pupils are coming onto the school site to receive their education.
Mary, 52, said: “I think there’s a bit of a misconception about primary schools at the moment. We are very much open, and we have a lot of students coming in.”
According to her, the system is very different to that experienced during the 2020 lockdowns: “Before, numbers were much lower- only around 20 children were coming in for the whole school. We put them all together, and it was more like childcare”.
Now, the school has decided to keep each classroom open like normal, which groups varying in size from 7 up to 16 children.
Mary explained: “We have staggered starting and finishing times, children don’t mix outside of their bubbles at playtime and lunchtime, and staff social distance from the children as much as possible.
“It works much like when schools are in, but with reduced numbers”.
St Teresa’s is also testing staff for Covid-19 twice a week in line with government guidance. It currently has 3 bubbles isolating due to two members of staff and one pupil testing positive.
“Those infections happened in the last week,” said Mary. “We hadn’t had any cases from January up until now.
“The situation is far from ideal, and we recognise that, but our staff are working incredibly hard to deliver the best education possible.”
The school is getting more requests week after week from parents asking that their child be allowed back onto the school site to learn.
“Sometimes it’s key workers that have had a change in circumstance, other times it’s just families who are suffering at home” Mary said.
On the whole, she feels that the children who are in school are coping better than those at home.
“They are getting more normalcy and have the chance to interact socially with their friends,” she said.
“Whereas many of the children at home are struggling, and the longer it goes on, the harder it is. They are picking up on adult tensions and stress” she added.
The school is trying to mitigate this impact by maintaining regular contact with families – teachers are calling, emailing and even going to the doorstep of families who are worried about their children falling behind.
They are also adopting the motto ‘do what you can, not what you can’t’, encouraging parents to be flexible with their children’s timetable while staying within government guidelines of 4 hours of work a day for those in KS2, and 2-3 hours a day at KS1.
As a headteacher, Mary said she is now trying to keep the curriculum as her priority for both those students in and off-site.
“Over the last 10 months, my job has been very operational and there’s been a huge focus on wellbeing” she said.
“Now I want to make sure that we are focusing on how the children are learning, what they are learning, and what works best for us.
“This means not just jumping on what other schools are doing- but listening to our children and responding to their needs.”
Up until now, St Teresa’s has had no clear messaging from the government about when it will be back running to full capacity, other than it will be after March 8th.
Mary said: “If the infection rate is low enough, I’d like to get as many children as possible back in March.
“I can’t see much benefit of a phased return because there are high numbers in the school anyway. We will keep our systems as they are, and scale up.”
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