STAFF at schools across East Sussex have been praised for their efforts which enabled more than 10,000 additional pupils to return to the classroom.
The Government closed settings to all children in March to stem the spread of the Covid-19 virus, with the exception of those considered vulnerable and those with parents who were keyworkers.
With restrictions slowly lifting, thousands of children have been able to return with the vast majority of the county’s schools now open.
Cllr Bob Standley, lead member for education and ISEND, said: “The situation over the past three months has been extremely challenging for schools. Not only have they been asked to remain open to provide vital childcare for some and set up home-learning for others, they have also had to transform their buildings into safe spaces for children to return.
“We are well aware that their hard work will not stop with more children returning to school as they will then face the challenge of getting pupils’ learning back on track.”
He added: “This time away from normal school routine will have had an enormous impact on children, both in terms of their learning and their mental health and wellbeing, and this is something schools will be addressing for some time. They thoroughly deserve our thanks and support.”
Last week, on average, 166 of the 187 schools in East Sussex opened their doors every day to more than 11,500 students. During lockdown an average of 140 remained open each to support more than 2,000 children.
Primary schools have introduced a raft of measures in a bid to maintain social distancing and keep staff and pupils as safe as possible.
Staff at Ditchling (St Margaret’s) CE Primary and Nursery School, where more than 65 per cent of children have now returned, undertook extensive planning including staggering start times, reorganising the school furniture, revised cleaning regimes, safety markings inside and outside the school, many timetable revisions and comprehensive risk assessments.
Headteacher Susan Thompson said: “We have faced some significant challenges during this time, not least the fast changing and sometimes conflicting advice received, as well as the home circumstances of staff.
“Staff have responded quickly to changing needs by developing home learning packs and online face-to-face learning opportunities, which were invaluable in helping the children to connect with each other, and with their teacher and have greatly supported their mental health and wellbeing.”
Having received positive feedback from parents whose children have returned to school, Mrs Thompson added: “It has been vital for children’s emotional well-being and mental health to have offered opportunities for them to return to school and prevent anxieties from building up over the summer and presenting us with greater difficulties when they do return.”
Children at Herstmonceux Primary School and All Saints’ and St Richard’s Primary School have kept in touch with their teachers throughout lockdown with daily feedback given on their work. For those who had trouble access technology, the school provided printed packs and tablets to support learning.
Catherine Cottingham, Executive Headteacher, said: “The learning feedback to children from teachers has been an important part of our lockdown provision enabling us to keep in contact with children and families and to support them in their learning.”
Following the Government’s announcement that school could open to certain year groups, the ability for senior leaders from the Sussex Spires Federation of schools to help plan has been invaluable.
“We were able to pool ideas and support one another through the process,” Miss Cottingham said. “We also invited staff give feedback and have input into the planning process.”
With 68 per cent of children back at All Saints’ and 45 per cent at Herstmonceux, Miss Cottingham added: “Coming into school each day has helped to give them back a sense of normality and routine in such a strange and disrupted time.
“Children coming back to school have had a lot of fun. A recurring piece of feedback from parents has been how much the children have enjoyed seeing their friends again and how much happier they have looked as a result.”
Plans put in place at Frant Primary school by Executive Headteacher Debbie Bennett and the Head of School, Mrs Joanna Challis have inspired confidence among parents resulting in 81 per cent of reception returning, all of Year 1 and 92 per cent of Year 6 children.
Mrs Bennett said: The successful return of the pupils is thanks to the hard work of all the staff in ensuring the classrooms, corridors and resources were available.
“Communication has been the key,” she added. “Parents have been extremely supportive of the school and have said they thought the school had handled the lockdown ‘brilliantly’ and there had been great communication.”
For those children still at home the school is providing daily plans, some online lessons and daily feedback to all work. There are follow up calls when needed and the school offers Talktime counselling over phone and in school.
Cllr Bob Standley, East Sussex County Council’s lead member for education, said: “It is incredibly important that parents feel confident enough to send their children back to school and school leaders have done an amazing job in putting measures in place to inspire confidence among children and their families.
“I would urge parents whose children can return to school, to encourage them to do so for the short period before the summer holidays to help them begin to prepare for the new academic year.”