However, alongside this optimism, there are often complementary feelings of anxiety for children and parents alike. What will the new teachers and classroom, and often even the setting, be like? Will my child settle and make friends? Will I manage the school run(s)? How will I feel about my child being away from me, possibly for the first time?
This autumn these usual apprehensions have, understandably, been greater than ever before. The coronavirus has added a myriad of new and complex concerns. All educational settings have had to reinvent themselves within weeks to be as COVID-19 safe as possible, mitigating risks and putting a multitude of measures in place to safeguard the wellbeing of children and staff. In addition, with the prevalence of unprecedented uncertainties for parents, it has been vital to support them as best we can.
Returning to full capacity here at Herne Hill School on the first day of September, our first priority was to ensure that we were ready for the children’s return and that we had given parents the assurance that school was going to be a safe, well-managed place to send their children. We began with lengthy (apologies, but necessary!) and in-depth communication with parents, detailing our risk control measures. Informed by scientific research and statistical data these measures included: operating in class bubbles, promoting enhanced personal hygiene, regular deep cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, one-way systems, staggered drop-off and pick-up times and amended timetables, to name a few. While vital, though, these logistical precautions and protocols were only the beginning of the changes needed. As an educational setting, we have to strike a delicate balance – mitigating risk while simultaneously ensuring the children’s school experiences remain as happy and ‘normal’ as possible.
This September, with parents no longer able to enter the school site, and with all of our pupils between the ages of 2 and 6 years old, separation procedures presented an enormous challenge for children, parents and teachers alike. It has been particularly difficult for our youngest children, many of whom have never spent time away from their parents. We know that for parents too, the sight of a distressed child vanishing through the school entrance into an unknown classroom is incredibly challenging. Three full weeks in that hurdle have now been vaulted and, with thanks to a brilliant team effort from staff and parents, we can happily report that the settling-in period ran tremendously smoothly.
One of the biggest challenges we now face is establishing and maintaining regular contact with parents in order to sustain that crucial home-school connection. Thinking of new, inventive ways for everyone to connect is a major priority for us going forward. So far, we have introduced fortnightly ‘insight’ videos of each class, showing children at ‘work’ and play in order to give parents a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ sense of life in the classroom. We have also offered virtual individual meetings with all parents early in the term to discuss how their child has settled in. These, amongst other measures, hopefully go some way towards strengthening the home and school bond, and as the term evolves, we will be looking for more.
We have, of course, had to turn to digital platforms for most of our communication. Virtual open days, online curriculum meetings and welcome videos for new children are now the norm. In that sense, COVID-19 has been a welcome catalyst for embracing technology within school. The platforms we are establishing are allowing us to adapt and evolve in a way that will be beneficial going forward into a post-COVID future, helping us to rethink how we can facilitate and improve indirect contact.
One concern we had on returning to school was that we would face unusually anxious children. The impact of the pandemic on children’s mental wellbeing is yet to be firmly established, but we do already know that children in general are dealing with heightened feelings of uncertainty and worry. In anticipation of this, children’s mental health was a major focus during our staff INSET training days in August. One session led by Jon Cree, a director of the Forest School Association, focussed on ways we might use our wonderful outdoor spaces at Herne Hill School to best support and benefit our children’s wellbeing. Science shows us not only that transmission of COVID-19 is significantly reduced by being outside, but also that the natural environment helps to reduce anxiety and promote happiness. Rooting ourselves in nature has meditative and therapeutic qualities that undeniably stimulate a sense of wellbeing.
Happily, in spite of our concern about children potentially exhibiting anxieties, we have been surprised and delighted at the enthusiasm with which they have started the new school year. Their collective and individual thirst for learning and curiosity in the world seems more pronounced than ever and there is a palpable atmosphere of joy as they thrive on the social opportunities school provides. The resilience and adaptability they have demonstrated in grasping the new way of being at school is more than we could possibly have hoped for.
The ‘shifting sands’ of the current situation means we will undoubtedly need to continue to evolve school life to adapt to the ever-changing picture. Not easy, but at Herne Hill School we will be striving to do so. For what is a school, without children within its walls?
Written by Ngaire Telford, Headteacher of Herne Hill School
Herne Hill School is the largest stand-alone independent school in England focusing exclusively on early childhood education and development of 2-7 year-olds.
Mrs Telford has been involved at the school since 2001, first as a parent of her four children and then, since 2007, as teacher and Deputy Head before being appointed Head in 2016.