The New Normal: Returning To School After COVID-19

The New Normal: Returning To School After COVID-19

So after 2 months of lockdown, the UK government is planning for schools to (gradually) reopen their doors.

That may stir up feelings of worry or anxiety for parents, pupils and staff.

But what can you do to make this as easy as possible for your pupils... and yourself?

All of us have gone through the most unusual, challenging and unprecedented events in living memory.

The coronavirus outbreak and lockdown has affected us all.  Not least in terms of our mental health - leading to increased levels of anxiety and stress.

And now it's time for another big change - the return to school.

But it won't be anything like what pupils are used to...

So it's important we get the next few weeks right - and set them (and us) up for success.

Here's 5 ways of doing exactly that.

1. Over-communicate what families and students can expect 

Your pupils have had a very different way of life for a number of months - and they may need help to understand that life will not immediately return to normal.

It's not going to be like flicking a switch - and magically everything returns to how it used to be.

There's going to be a long period of adjustment, maybe lasting years, where our life gradually moves towards something that looks like 'normal'.

So you'll need to explain what families can expect when schools re-open their gates.

But just because you've sent that message out once - don't assume they heard it.

We need to over-communicate our message - using clear, simple language.

The first part of over-communication is sending the same message, worded in different ways, across lots of different media.

You could use:

  • Your social media
  • Text messaging
  • Email
  • Signs outside the school
  • Messaging platforms like Class Dojo or Marvellous Me
  • Even actual addressed letters!

Don't rely on your school website though - this relies on parents regularly opening their browsers and checking it.

The second part of over-communication is repetition.

Advertisers know that repetition is key to getting your message heard and understood - so be prepared to hammer away at the same nail repeatedly!

Over and over and over...

This isn't wasted time.  If you send a message just once, you risk parents:

  • Missing it
  • Skimming past it on their phone - and not actually reading it, because they've assumed they know what it says
  • Not understanding it

This repetition - and clarity - will lead to greater understanding.

And when parents have the right expectations, they can support their children by reinforcing the right messages at home.

2. Give time and space for kids to talk about their feelings

The temptation may be to jump straight back into the curriculum and start catching up for missed time, but children who aren't emotionally settled don't learn well.

(Our article about stress and behaviour explains why.)

Many children will have anxiety about:

  • leaving their parents and returning to school
  • what happens if they catch coronavirus at school
  • the safety of the families and siblings they're leaving behind

So take the time to talk about their worries - and the best way of making that happen is by building it into your timetable.

When you're thinking about your new routine, think about where you are going to slot this into your day or lesson.

You could:

  • Have a daily circle time session (obviously, due to social distancing, you'd do this without the circle!)
  • Having a worry box in which pupils can post their concerns
  • Run a daily mindfulness session or meditation
  • Have a check-in during your lesson where kids can use a thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs-to-the-side to show how they feel

Want to kickstart conversations about emotions with younger children? 'The Huge Bag of Worries' by Virginia Ironside is a place to start.

3. Get your new routine up and running

Most children have had no routine for weeks on end, a lot of screen time and late nights and late mornings.

That means getting to school and staying awake all day may be an achievement for some pupils (and staff!) 

So make sure you introduce your new classroom routine straight away - but that doesn't mean we expect our pupils to work in the same way as they did before school closed.

Kids feel safer - and less anxious - when they know what to expect.  So spend some time introducing your new routines, explaining how work will be taught and what the shape of the day will look like.

To support your new routine:

  • Get your visual timetable on the wall and use it! The kids need to know what they are doing and when
  • Build in time to talk about emotions (as mentioned above)
  • Work on having calm class transitions when children come in and out of the room
  • Build up their learning stamina by using learning breaks (maybe more regularly than you used to).  You may find that taking breaks for some mindful colouring activities, running a quiz or watching a short information video, actually results in greater learning and progress.

Then once you have started your new routine, stick to it.

It will help your pupils know where they stand and what to expect - and they'll be better able to manage their emotions and behaviour as a result.

And don't forget to use lots of praise and recognition throughout the day to tell your class how well they're doing!

4. Be prepared!

You may be teaching pupils you’ve taught before - or you may have a completely new class.

Find out as much as you can about each and every pupil. The more you know about the child, the easier it will be to spot when they are struggling.

For pupils with behavioural special needs, this means knowing the changes in their body language that indicate they're becoming more anxious or unsettled.

Don't waste time learning from experience.  Talk to previous teachers - or your SENCO - to find out what those telltale signals are and the best ways of intervening.

Make sure you know whether any student has suffered a serious illness or bereavement in their family so that you can keep an eye on them and offer help.

Your school probably has a plan in place to offer support to these pupils – ensure you know what that plan is, how that translates into support in the classroom, and who else is giving the family help through this difficult time.

5. Understand parents' fears

The fact is, kids are usually more resilient than we realise! 

However, parents and carers may be struggling with the idea of sending their child back into school, especially with the threat of another outbreak.

(If they're having difficulties with their child's emotions and behaviour, try signposting them to this free resource.)

Remember: In most cases, if families are reluctant to bring their child into school, it's probably because of a genuine concern about their child's well-being.

To overcome these concerns, mass communication (letters, emails, social media etc.) will not be enough.  They'll need personal communication with a member of staff to talk through these concerns.

A human-to-human connection is key - even if that takes place virtually!

So, if a family isn't sending their child into school, make personal contact to find out why.  Start your conversations from a place of concern and understanding (rather than talking about poor attendance, school expectations or threatening enforcement.)

Actively listen to their anxieties and offer them reassurance.  It might be all it takes to encourage the family to return their child to school.

And be prepared to answer questions at the end of the school day - or even invite your parents to talk (using video conferencing or over the phone) so you can tell them personally what you are doing to keep their kids safe.

Finally: continue to over-communicate to all parents about what your school is doing to keep their children safe even after their return (see point 1!)

Key takeaways 

There will be a new ‘normal’ – don’t expect everything to just return to how it was. 

To help our families return to school successfully:

  1. Over-communicate what they can expect before they return
  2. Plan times into the day where your pupils can talk about their emotions and worries
  3. Get a consistent routine up and running - don't change it from day to day!
  4. Find out about the underlying needs of your pupils - especially if you're teaching new students
  5. Understand your parents' fears and resolve them through personal dialogue (rather than mass communication)

And remember: Continue to promote good hygiene. Have plenty of soap, hand sanitiser and tissues available! And be very clear about how good hygiene is important and will keep us all safe in school.

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