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Coronavirus: Navigating the first morning at school since March

Arriving at school

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Parents dropping off children at St Mary Magdalen’s Catholic Primary School in west London

At St Mary Magdalen’s Catholic Primary School in West London, head teacher Helen Frostick has spent the last couple of weeks redesigning classrooms, reconfiguring timetables and totally rethinking school policy on everything from PE to uniform.

By the time she welcomed back pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6, every classroom looked very different.

It’s particularly striking for the youngest pupils:.

“They’ve got their own little tables,” says teaching assistant, Clare Gordon. “Obviously they’re used to spending a lot of time on the carpet,”

Each table is separate, with its own tray of equipment so that the children don’t need to get out of their seats so much.

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Reception children sit at their own little desks rather than on the carpet

On arrival the parents queue with their children in the playground, which has been marked into two metre sections and each year group has been asked to arrive at a different time.

They don’t have to wait long.

“You look like you’ve grown Arthur,” says teacher Catherine Hughes to a Reception pupil who hasn’t been in school since March.

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Head teacher Helen Frostick thinks many parents are biding their time before sending their children back to school

“Are you excited to be back?” Ms Frostick asks another.

She was expecting to welcome 70 pupils, who were last in school in late March, alongside 15 children of key workers who have been coming in throughout the lockdown – but in the end just 32 turned up.

Ms Frostick is not too surprised, given ongoing concerns about the health impact of reopening schools.

She believes many parents are waiting to see how it goes – so numbers may pick up in coming days.

These primary school classrooms now look more a little like might have done in the 1950s with all the desks facing forward in rows, instead of being pushed together into big tables.

For Year 6 pupils, it’s a foretaste of the discipline they might expect when they start secondary school in September.

“I’m excited to see my friends and see everyone but not excited for the work,” says 11-year-old Sean who has just a few weeks left at the school.

He says he has kept up with the home schooling “but it’s nowhere near the amount we normally do”.

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Sean and Ruby are Year 6 pupils at St Mary Magdalen’s

His classmate Ruby, also 11, quite likes the new desk arrangement as it gives her a bit more personal space.

“It could be better because sometimes people can be annoying.”

Sean agrees it will be better for concentration but says “partner work” will now be impossible.

The school has split each class into two separate “bubbles” with one half in on Monday and Tuesday and the other on Thursday and Friday, which allows for a deep clean on Wednesdays.

Ruby says she will miss some of the people in the other group. School will be “way different”, she says.

Dora who is not due in until Thursday is quite disappointed.

“I was looking forward to seeing all my friends again; it’s been over two months since I last saw them at school.

“And then I found out I was only going to see three of my friends because the rest of them are put together in the other group.

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Desks are in rows facing the front

“It isn’t long until the end of primary school and I’m worried I wont be able to see my friends before we’re all sent off to different secondary schools.”

One thing is for sure – hand washing is going to play a far larger part in the school day than ever before.

Every classroom has its own supply of hand-sanitizer and anti-microbial wipes – and the windows are wide open to let in as much fresh air as possible to keep the virus at bay.

Sophia was one of the parents who did decide to bring her children in to school on Monday,

“It really is best for the family,” she says.

She says she has managed to do some home schooling with her sons Nico, nearly five, and Alessio, 6, but it hasn’t always been easy.

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Sophia who sent both her children back to school says it’s best for her family

Julia who was dropping off six-year-old Max agrees.

“I was 10% worried but 90% thinking it was the right thing to do,” she says of her decision.

“The main thing is for normality and for his mental health. He needs the interaction with his friends. He’s been begging to come back.”

Ruby and Sean agree they have definitely missed being taught by professional teachers rather than mums and dads.

“I call my mum over and she says: ‘What is this?'” says Sean – while his dad can sometimes be a bit confusing when he comes up with “an easier way” of doing the maths.

School governor and parent Serena whose son is also in Year 6, says she too struggled with home education as her two sons have to share a single computer.

She says she is confident that the school has done a very stringent risk assessment and says her boy needs more structure in his life in the run-up to secondary school.

But preparing to reopen has been challenging, as it was one thing deciding to send her own child back but far tougher to make decisions on behalf of the wider school community.

“The virus is such an unknown. It’s been quite stressful. I feel a great deal of responsibility,” says Serena.

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