06/06/2020 07:53 BST

Bubbles, Zombie Arms And Laughter: Inside England's Re-Opened Classrooms

From virtual hugs to some enterprising social distancing measures, teachers say despite all their fears – being reunited with school children has been surprisingly joyous.

Get the latest on coronavirus. Sign up to the Daily Brief for news, explainers, how-tos, opinion and more.

The first day back at school is always a mixture of nerves, anxiety and excitement – but none more so than when some children returned at the beginning of this week, after 10 long weeks of coronavirus lockdown. 

And none more divided either, as unions, parents and scientists warned against the government’s easing of the lockdown.

Many parents chose not to send their children back, despite Boris Johnson’s announcement of a return of school children in reception, Year 1 and Year 6 in England from June 1.

A number of councils across England opposed schools opening to more pupils amid safety concerns and many remained open to only the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils as they have since March 23.

However, some schools who opened their doors to more youngsters this week after making drastic changes to their classrooms and timetables to allow for social distancing measures, revealed to HuffPost UK that despite their reservations and anxieties, the first week of ‘back to school’ has been “emotional in a joyous way.”

It’s like having an empty house that’s suddenly full of life again. It’s just so lovely to hear laughter and fun in the corridors again.”Brian Walton, Brookside Academy, Somerset

And although they know they will face many challenges ahead as they prepare to take in greater numbers of children while trying to keep everyone safe, they say they have been buoyed by the happiness of children at being reunited with their friends and teachers and their resilience in the face of challenging circumstances.

“It’s like having an empty house that’s suddenly full of life again.” admitted Brian Walton, headteacher at Brookside Academy in Somerset. “It’s just so lovely to hear laughter and fun in the corridors again.”

He said the school had around 30 children on site each day throughout the lockdown as they took in the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils and have a special school for children with special educational needs.

But he said to go from that to having around 100 children running around the fields and outside has led to a “different noise” which has made the school staff feel very positive despite their apprehension.

Brookside Academy
Brian Walton, headteacher at Brookside Academy in Somerset

Walton says the school has all the procedures in place to maintain social distancing such as chalk markings on the ground and the children are in their “bubbles” with frequent hand washing and the cleaning and sanitising of tables.

“Things are still far from normal,” he said. “But there is a sense that we are getting back to what a school is all about.

“There is a feeling of weirdness – but also a sense of calm. We know caution and a lot of planning is still needed to get this right and if I feel there were any risks, I will make changes and even shut again if needed.

“The children have been so positive and were so excited to see their friends again. Their energy levels are immense as they have been missing that social interaction.”

Youngsters arriving back to Roade Primary School in Northampton are greeted every morning with a “virtual hug” at the school gates by headteacher Mark Currell.

Roade Primary School
Mark Currell, headteacher at Roade Primary School in Northampton gives a "virtual hug"

He told HuffPost UK that the school has created bubbles, zones and no-go areas and are doing everything they can to minimise the risk of the virus – not just for the children and teachers, but for the families they go home to.

Teacher Cora Taylor says pupils came into school “bubbling over” with tales of all the different things they had been up to during lockdown. “The children were very excited and were smiling and chatting and told us about all the walks they had been on, the sticks they had found and one of them had got a new puppy. 

“They really seemed to enjoy that extra time with their family but were so happy to be back. Children are very resilient and they settled into their new classrooms and adapted to the changes very quickly.”

Currell says that it was heartwarming to hear children share stories about how they had learnt to do things like ride a bike without stabilisers and learn to cook with their parents during their time together during lockdown.

“It has been quite lovely and healthy for those children and parents to have spent that extra time together.” he said. “But we have also been very careful to monitor children who are less supported at home.”

The school has taken steps such as putting stickers on the carpet so youngsters know there are specific places to sit and putting signs up to remind them to stay in their bubbles stating: “Don’t pop my bubble.”

But children are being quite inventive when it comes to social distancing themselves and Currell said Year 1 pupils were walking around the school “like zombies” with their arms out to make sure they don’t go near anyone else.

“Trying to teach younger ones to socially distance is a big challenge.” he said. “They haven’t seen their friends for 10 weeks and they want to share things. But they have been a lot better than I thought they would be.”

In the classrooms, each child has their own table with a zip wallet containing everything they need from school books to pencils, a ruler and eraser. The idea is that they don’t need to get up to get anything or share resources – which goes against the grain of what their teachers normally encourage. However, staff say the children are “loving the novelty of doing something different.”

However, Currell knows they are currently “riding on the crest of a wave” as there are low numbers in school with around 80 out of 300 children back. 

While they can find their feet with smaller groups, Currell is mindful there will be greater challenges when they expand to more children – particularly when it comes to maintaining social distancing.

“At the moment, we are OK as we’ve had good weather so the children have been able to spend time outdoors and run around.

“But what happens when it is raining and those 15 children are kept in their classrooms for seven hours? That is going to be difficult.

“When expansion happens, we are going to have t re-think the whole set-up including rotas and lunchtimes.”

The National Education Union carried out a survey of schools and their reaction to being asked to open more widely to children under the easing of lockdown.

They found 44% of schools did not open more widely to any of the year groups suggested by the prime minister on June 1. Thirty-five per cent opened on June 1 on the terms expected by Boris Johnson and 21% opened more widely, but on less terms than expected by the PM.

There was also a stark regional variation with just 12% of schools in the North East and 8% in the North West – where levels of coronavirus are higher – opening fully to all eligible years groups in their school. 

Greenfield School, Woking
Youngsters being taught while socially distancing at Greenfield School in Woking

Tania Botting, headteacher at Greenfield School in Woking, admitted to HuffPost UK that she felt very anxious about having the children return and felt physically sick. “I had some really weird dreams the week before such as my staff hugging each other and me telling them not to.” she said.

“I never want to live through anything like this again. It has been my most stressful period as a head.” 

What we see as difficulties, the children see as a huge adventure.”Tania Botting, Greenfield School, Woking

But she says everything went a lot smoother than envisaged and the children adapted to the changes far better than she thought.

“What we see as difficulties, the children see as a huge adventure,” she explained. “Children are very adaptable and we need to give them more credit for that.

“I worried about things like not providing a proper lunch for them but giving them a packed lunch to eat on the field in their bubble. But they absolutely loved it and there was so much excitement.”

Botting says she ensures nothing goes home at the end of the school day with the children – no water bottles or pencil cases. Parents collecting their children drive through in a loop and don’t get out of the car. Staff carrying walkie talkies take each child to the vehicle.

“Parents had told us they were getting worried about their child’s behaviour and temper tantrums during lockdown.” she said. “For me, it has been about getting the children back to more normality. 

“They came into school beaming and the feedback I have received from parents is that they’ve been buzzing when they got back home.

“Some parents admitted they had felt anxious and worried about their child going back, but that seeing the joy on their face was worth it.”

Greenfield School
Tania Botting, head at Greenfield School, Woking,

Botting says one of the questions parents have had is what will happen if their child falls over and hurts themselves at school and how teachers will deal with such situations when trying to maintain social distancing.

She said although this luckily hasn’t happened as yet, a teacher’s instinctive reaction would be to “scoop the child up.” She says that although they won’t be able to do this, they will still comfort them.

“Putting your arms around a child when you are stood up and they are at knee level will be fine.” she said. “But we won’t be able to crouch down to give them a hug.

“I think it would be too cruel to completely push them away. And if they are hurting, we will use masks and gloves.”

Vic Goddard, principal at Passmores Academy in Essex, who starred in the 2011 BBC programme Educating Essex, told HuffPost UK that they faced a heartbreaking moment when a pupil from Romania got upset in school as he realised that for the first time, he wouldn’t be able to go and visit his Romanian family that summer.

“Usually, we would have taken him to a room and had a one-to-one chat with him.” said Goddard. “Trying to comfort him from two metres away was very difficult. Luckily, he rallied quickly.”

Passmores Academy
Vic Goddard, principal at Passmores Academy in Essex

Goddard says their school is staggering the return of pupils and have had Year 6 back this week with Year 1 set to return next. Around 45% of the parents chose to send their children back to school.

“The kids were just so pleased to see each other and us. It has been an incredibly joyous week.

“There was definitely more anxiety amongst the teachers than the children – the kids have been remarkably accepting of the fact that things have changed.

“They have really stepped up and their behaviour has been immaculate during these first few days back. Even some of the traditionally challenging children have come back and realised: ‘Now is not the time.’

“You don’t realise what you’ve got until you haven’t got it anymore and I think the children realised how much they value school.

“It has made us feel a lot more confident about the weeks ahead.”

You don’t realise what you’ve got until you haven’t got it anymore and I think the children realised how much they value school.Vic Goddard, Passmores Academy, Essex

However, Goddard says children are currently coming into school for the morning and going home before lunch, and he knows life will become tricky when greater numbers of children return and when they have them for the full school day.

“If all the kids came back, we’d need to build another school and have more teachers if we wanted to maintain social distancing,” he said.

“The timing of the easing of the lockdown coinciding with children returning to school was a real source of anxiety for the teachers and their worries are around the coronavirus infection rate going up and children not realising they are carriers.

“All we can do is take all the steps we can to mitigate the risk.”

Across the 1,000 children they have across their schools, Goddard says they are aware of 20 deaths in the family. “We are extremely aware that the children coming back into school are not the same as when they left and some have had a different lived experience and suffered bereavement.”

Allana Gay, headteacher at Vita Et Pax prep school in North London, told HuffPost UK the return of the children has been: “emotional in a joyous way.” She said there was lots of excited chatter as the youngsters shared tales of life at home during lockdown.

“There was a lot of talking and chatter and catching up and the children told us all the stories of everything that happened in their house during lockdown. They probably shared tales their parents would have preferred them not to such as mishaps when dinner got burnt!”

She says one of the things teachers have noticed is children have been saying: “I’m starving” and asking for snacks in the middle of lessons as they have got used to having constant snacks at home.”

Allana Gay
Allana Gay, headteacher at Vita Et Pax prep school in North London

Gay said the children are wearing face masks in the playgrounds as she feels that at least offers some level of protection if they come too close when playing.

“The children are full of energy and vigour and are being inventive with their social distancing games such as building forts and going from one fort to the other or going back to playing traditional games such as hide and seek.

“The school rooms may look different and they have to wash their hands more often, but they are willing to do that just to be together again.”