Once upon a time, going back to school was all about new uniforms, seeing pals and hearing parents’ sighs of relief as they handed their children back to teachers.

Now, in the time of coronavirus, back to school spells a hot mess of anxiety, fear and even guilt for everyone involved, especially parents wanting to get kids out of their hair. There’s also confusion about the lack of clarity and time-sensibility of official guidance.

Working in a primary school that’s been open throughout the pandemic so we can care for vulnerable pupils and key workers’ children, I’m used to going in.

I’m an expert in distancing groups of small children when every bone in their bodies tells them to hug, hold hands, whisper in each other’s ears and play together.  

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Yesterday, the first batch of extra children, who had up until now been home, also came in.

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Over the weekend, my head spun with worries – the virus, teetering on R1, was still having a field day, unlike the children. PPE for teachers is optional, apart from those carrying out first-aid, so although I really want to wear a mask, I didn’t want to stand out or scare the little ones. 

There’s a long list of new rules that are difficult to uphold – from the two-metre rule to the logistics of more frequent hand washing, and having the poor kids sit at the same desk for work and  lunch, and not even being allowed to wander around the classroom – it’s tough on them, and us.

Add to that scorching weather, wall-to-wall press and TV coverage of what seemed like the whole of England hitting the beaches, riverbanks and parks in numbers far outstripping those of an average bank holiday pre-coronavirus, and my anxiety levels were rocketing. 

Yesterday I woke at 5am and went for a long walk. I came back, packed a lunch of stuff that can be binned on-site to avoid carrying things (like the virus) back-and-forth from home to school and off I went, feeling vulnerable and paranoid in equal measure.

The first thing the kids learnt about when they arrived was ‘pods’, which are safety groups of up to 15 pupils and teaching staff who – where possible, and that’s another worry – stick together throughout the school every day to minimise the spread risk. Although we pre-warned parents about this, the children were often so sad about not being with their friends.

First day back, the class was quiet – not because they didn’t chat, they did, but because they couldn’t get up and walk over to a classmate

In the playground, they either stared wistfully at one another from a safe distance or were constantly reminded to ‘keep apart, please don’t cuddle,’ which goes against everything we have ever taught them.

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Lessons are restricted as resources can’t be shared. Whiteboards are the new norm, but they need to be sterilised each time they’re used. Surfaces and hands are scrubbed constantly.

First day back, the class was quiet – not because they didn’t chat, they did, but because they couldn’t get up and walk over to a classmate. The talking was done in a hushed sort of way and the students were more self-conscious around pupils they don’t know so well.

One boy put his hand up and said he’d lost his rubber. Another boy immediately jumped up and offered to lend him his. I had to ask him not to and explain why, as gently as I could, and reassure him that he had done the right thing, the kind thing, but unfortunately, that’s not allowed right now.

Toilets were partially closed to encourage the two-metre rule, and corridors were unnaturally bare as we needed all the ‘fun’ space to facilitate the two-way filing system. Balls were also discouraged as, despite asking the students not to pick them up and pass them to each other, children just can’t help themselves.

The saddest thing of all was that the bookshelves had been turned to face the walls.

But there were positive moments, too.

At lunch, we all sat together. There was a lovely sense of camaraderie and and it gave us a chance to catch up with all their news. 

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One child, who is very popular and always surrounded by loads of friends and leading the games, sat alone, cross-legged on a bench. When I asked if she was OK and enjoying her first day, she said: ‘Yes, I like it being quiet. I can get time to myself.’

This was somewhat overshadowed when I then asked another pupil: ‘What did you do at the weekend?’ and he answered: ‘We all went on a long trip to the beach and it was so, so busy, but so fun.’

By the end of the day both children and adults were oddly exhausted. I suppose it was due to the high levels of alertness and responsibility. At home, I hugged my own kids close – I felt it was too soon to let them go in.

Now, I can only long for the days when the schools are full of bustle and noise again, especially the sound of unbridled, fear-free laughter.

This author’s name is a pseudonym.

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