‘Everyone is really nervous’: UK teachers on going back to school

As most schools across the UK start the new term, with pupils in Scotland having been back for two weeks, many teachers and students are no longer expected to socially distance or wear masks. Air quality monitors will be provided to schools in England to help combat Covid.

The Guardian spoke to six teachers about the start of term and how they are feeling about returning.

‘Everyone is relieved to be back in a routine’

Chris, 55, an English teacher at a secondary school in Oxfordshire, welcomes the Department for Education’s plans to provide 300,000 CO2 monitors. “They’re absolutely a good idea,” Chris says. “I’m not sure whether it’s enough for every classroom in every school. My own school must have around 100 classrooms.”

Chris’s English classes each have between 28 and 30 pupils – “absolutely full, in other words” – meaning social distancing measures have been impossible to uphold. “We’re moving out of the bubbles and now students move freely around the school – fundamentally all of the year groups will mix.”

That said, Chris looks forward to returning to the classroom. “At no point during the pandemic have I felt unsafe at school. Everyone is so relieved to be out of the house and back in a routine, no matter how much they liked school.”

‘I feel tired just thinking about it’

Rachel, 54, who teaches art at a secondary school in Wirral, is apprehensive about her return to class. “I feel tired just thinking about it,” she says. “Some of the usual demands of the job were minimised due to Covid restrictions, such as fewer long reports to write; now they will be reinstated along with Covid considerations.”

Since teaching remotely, Rachel has found that pupils’ parents contact her more frequently. “It’s at any time of the day or night, and this has carried on even now we’re back in the classroom. In some ways it’s great to have that relationship, but maybe there needs to be a boundary put in place.”

Rachel is concerned by the readjustment students will have to make and the effects of the pandemic on their mental health. “In my tutor group, there have increasingly been issues with anxiety and eating disorders. I’m in the position where I have to make deals with some students about when they attend school.”

‘Everyone in the staffroom is really nervous’

For Mike, a secondary school teacher in Lincolnshire, the lack of guidance from the government produces a degree of uncertainty. Regarding air quality monitors, he thinks they are “completely daft”. “We don’t know what to expect,” he says. “They’re apparently meant to measure if a room is stuffy but the difference in air quality between a room of 10 pupils and 29 (my largest-sized class) will be huge.”

Mike, who is in his 50s and has been a teacher for more than 20 years, says opening doors for ventilation is not always the answer. “The DfE should try teaching in some of our rooms with all the doors and windows open in the winter.

“Even though I’m double vaccinated, I am worried about getting Covid. One colleague who is a similar age to me suffered quite badly during the last week of term despite being double jabbed. Everyone in the staffroom is really nervous.”

‘Too many Covid cases, too few measures’

Jack, 30, who teaches English at a large secondary school in London, missed the last two weeks of the summer term last year when he tested positive for Covid. “I was double jabbed but got fairly ill – I’m a bit apprehensive about returning.”

He accepts schools have to get back to normal but is concerned that “not much” is being put into place to mitigate against the risks of Covid. He has up to 32 children in a classroom, and social distancing would be “impossible”.

“Very little has been done to ensure Covid doesn’t spread,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it when students were told they no longer had to wear masks. The whole system is a farce. I’d be very surprised if this is a school year that is ‘normal’ again. Too many [Covid] cases, too few measures.”

‘It will be good to be able to do group activities’

“As soon as one person gets Covid, it spreads like wildfire,” says Tom, 30, who works as a primary school teacher in West Yorkshire. Last year social distancing was “more or less impossible” with young children, he says, and getting them to sit apart from one another went “against all the pedagogy you’re taught”.

He says he is happy about returning. “It will be nice not to have so many different Covid updates a week from the government. That said, I am worried about some of the more vulnerable staff who might still get very ill.

“It will be good to be able to do things like group activities and sharing and partner work with the children again,” he adds. “Interaction is huge for children that age and I’m looking forward to providing them with those opportunities to help with their progression.”

‘Nearly 200 pupils are already off due to Covid’

In Scotland, children have been back at school for the last two weeks. One teacher who works at a secondary school in a major city says things have been “very difficult”, with nearly 200 pupils off because they have tested positive for Covid or have had to isolate.

The teacher, who has been teaching for 15 years and asked to remain anonymous, says pupils are not wearing masks or social distancing. “It’s a really difficult environment to work in,” she says.

“I’m happy to be back at school and teaching again as our young people need face-to-face contact, but there is so much additional work for us and some teachers who are not double jabbed are worried. No one is complaining though. We all want to return to teaching as normal and make sure the children get a full education.”

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