As a few countries begin to reopen schools and nurseries, cautiously moving forwards into a new way of life alongside COVID-19, there has been speculation about what a return to learning in a setting will look like in the UK.
The wellbeing of all our children, from toddlers to teenagers, needs to be at the heart of what we do next. Every child will have experienced the loss of socialising with peers and nurturing friendships, the sudden absence of trusted educators, the removal from familiar learning spaces. Each child is unique and will respond to these losses in their own way. Many will have had other unimaginable challenges to face during lockdown.
Children will also be wondering what it means to be safe. For weeks, they have been told they must stay home to stay safe and keep others safe. Parents and carers will have managed their child’s comprehension of these messages in different ways. Once settings and schools begin to reopen, the national message needs to change to one that children can understand so they feel secure about going out to school or nursery.
There are growing voices asking us to look at what will be expected of our children and educators and calling for nurture to come first, moving towards a balance and discovering what we can learn and change in our education system in the light of the pandemic. Barry Carpenter, Professor of Mental Health in Education at Oxford Brookes University and Matthew Carpenter, Principal of Baxter College, Kidderminster, have written about a Recovery Curriculum for our children. They write that ‘the Recovery Curriculum is an essential construct for our thinking and our planning. Each school must fill it with the content they believe is best for the children of their school community, informed by your inherent understanding of your children in your community.’ Children will need time to trust again, to talk about what has happened, to nourish their peer relationships.
In one example of how a nation can show immense respect for its children and young people, the Norwegian Prime Minister has made two televised addresses specifically for children since the pandemic arrived in Norway. In them, she speaks to children about their fears, and her own. She thanks them for the sacrifices they are making and for the way this is helping their country. And at the end she answers questions posted by children. In addition, the Education Ministry produced online clips to prepare children for what to expect.
The message to parents and carers also needs to change. Some may be fearful of sending their children back into learning spaces, especially if schools and early years settings are among the first sectors of society to open up. This can be seen in countries like Norway and Denmark, where Facebook pages campaigning against children being the first to experience life out there alongside COVID-19 are gaining momentum. Parents cannot be expected to just accept that their children will be safe. Clear and positive persuasion is required.
When our country does begin to open up, and schools and nurseries open their doors to welcome children again, there will be many adaptations: hand washing before, during and after everything; perhaps small pods of children being grouped together but socially distanced from others; perhaps the changing of clothes on arrival; children being required to be more independent (depending on their age); social distancing between staff; parents and carers staying off the premises; perhaps with only email contact with staff. For an example of what it is already happening in early years settings who remain open for vulnerable children and those of key workers, June O’Sullivan’s blog discusses the LEYF nurseries’ approach.
We will all need preparing, and children, families and staff will need time to ease gently into a new way of learning, to adapt and to eventually flourish.
Edited by Jules