Child with facemask. Graphic: Pixabay/Pedro Wroclaw Child with facemask. Graphic: Pixabay/Pedro Wroclaw

Children will not be returning to normal schooling this week, explains NEU executive member Philipa Harvey 

On Sunday 10 May the government announced that schools would open more widely from 1 June. They would now be open to Reception (four year olds) and Year 1 (five year olds) and it was also expected that Year 6 (ten year olds) should return. On the following day Monday, Nursery was added to the list.

This gave primary schools fifteen working days to plan for how to manage this reopening to ensure the safety of the children and their staff.

They had been given a date, then they were given plans and then they were told how to do this safely but without being told it was in fact safe because no evidence was provided.

Primary schools were then sent guidance on how to make their schools safe. Any planning that they may have been doing had to be significantly readjusted because there had been no indication that the youngest children would be the first to be invited back. And it is clear that these children are going to find social distancing very difficult if not impossible.

So what will the children be returning to? What is it so important that they get back to?

It will not be school like they know it. Schools have been putting plans into place with safety first and so they may be able to manage social distancing, but will they be able to manage the nurture of young children? 

It will not be the familiar and the comforting. Firstly there is a good chance they will not be returning to their own teacher or teaching assistant as in many schools up to half the staff are not in a position to return to work. They will not be returning to their friends.

Again only a third of children are returning to school and it is possible they may not be placed in the same bubble for a number of different reasons. A bubble of the same children and adults situated in the same location for the duration of the time children are in school to minimise contact, therefore reducing risk of transmission.


They may not be returning to their own classroom if the schools needs to relocate children to a different room to ensure they are in the best space and to ensure they are creating a small enough bubble. In fact the children may not even be entering the school through their normal entrance and they won’t even be able to say goodbye to their parents or carers in the normal way as they will not be allowed in to the building or within two metres of the staff.

Not a great start to the day for a child who may be anxious or traumatised by what has been happening over the past few weeks as they are left with a new teacher from a distance. Now I am sure most schools will do everything they can to ensure there is some familiarity but you can see how difficult this will be.

Once at school all but the very youngest children are likely to need to stay in their own seats, with their own equipment and very strict rules about any movement from that seat. They will not be able to interact with their classmates to collaborate in their learning as we so often do in primary classrooms. The teacher or teaching assistant will not be able to go over to them to show them what to do, to demonstrate to comfort to encourage to provide individual learning. There will be instruction from the front of the room. No opportunity to talk to your partner or work with a friend or complete some group work. Read any primary school ethos statement and it will include statements about working together, collaboration and sharing.

The room they return to will also look different, there will be no soft toys or furnishing, no jigsaws or construction materials – how can you deep clean the Lego every day? Children will not get their books marked individually and they will not be able to go into book corners and choose a book to take home to share. In fact sharing is not going to be a feature of primary classes for a while.

The children are going to find a very different environment when they return. Teachers will do their very best to make it exciting, fun and interesting. They will be performing at their very best but they will also be returning to an environment that is alien to them. They will also be in a bubble.

There will be no opportunity to rush into each other’s classrooms at break and lunchtime to check how their day is going, revise their plans and share their experiences, help each other out with any advice and support, this will have to be done by email or phone. Staff will be isolated in their bubble, fully responsible for the children they are ‘teaching’ and even at the end of the day they will just have to go home – no time together to evaluate their day, laugh, cry and prepare for the next day as a team which is such an important element of any primary school.


This isolation will come on top of the trauma and mental health issues they may be dealing with on their return to ‘teaching’ at school after working from home or working on the rota for the past 8 weeks.

So as children and their families prepare to return to school it is important that they know what it is they are returning to. It is not back to normal, it is not education as normal, it is certainly not teaching as normal. It will not be the education that Boris Johnson says is “crucial for their welfare, their health, for their long term future and for social justice”.

Teachers are known for making the best of a bad job but we have not been trained for this one.  We should not be held responsible for the mental wellbeing of the children returning to us and we should not be held responsible for their safety. What we are being asked to do stops us doing our job which is actually to teach.

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