How one Sheffield school is coping with shift back to remote learning and introduction of Covid testing
It is 9am on a wet and rainy Wednesday morning and the corridors of Newfield School are much quieter than many thought they would be back before the Christmas holidays.
The majority of pupils on roll at the Norton Lees secondary school are still at their respective homes and are logged on to remote lessons – a mixture of live sessions, interactive powerpoint presentations and recorded videos all of which follow the same curriculum that would be taught in the classroom.
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson closed all schools in England in an address to the nation late on Monday, January 5, some teachers had barely 12 hours’ notice to completely rewrite their plans for the term.
Fortunately, schools were better prepared than when they faced similar circumstances last March, with plans already in place to best support pupils at home and staff well versed and trained on how to deliver the online learning.
Now Chris Jenkinson and Simon Dawson, deputy headteachers of Newfield School, have revealed how their staff and students are readjusting to life in lockdown just two weeks into the new term.
“The focus has got to be on the kids who we care for everyday,” Mr Jenkinson said.
"We understand how hard it is. We sent out a letter this week saying we – not I, not you, not they – will do this together.
"We’ve learnt a lot from lockdown one and the mini lockdown in November. You’ve got teachers who were feeling uncomfortable doing live lessons but then after they’d done one it just became normal.
“For example, I can think of an English teacher who was wary of doing them but the whole department said they’d do it together and all have a go and the majority are doing live lessons now."
Simon Dawson, who is also deputy headteacher, described the school as a “family” where staff have been supported through the change to remote lessons and are working hard once again to ensure the best possible outcomes for students amid what is a challenging time for all.
He said: "We’re very much a family, we’ve not dictated to staff that lessons had to be live or recorded as the jury is out as to which one is better. But what’s actually happened is that staff have naturally moved to live lessons as they see the benefits to it, when you’ve the pupils in front of you to a point.
“They thrive on that interaction, whether it’s text based or asking them questions across the screen and that’s the thing that’s led them. It’s not been dictation about live lessons it’s been an encouragement but that’s grown and will continue to grow.”
Again, as with the first and subsequent periods of lockdown, the doors of Newfield remain firmly open for the children of key workers, vulnerable children, and those who need extra support – with all following the same timetable for their year group no matter if they are at home or in school.
Mr Jenkinson explained: “We want to support the NHS as much as possible and the infrastructure around that but, at the same time, parents should be keeping their children as home as much as they can to flatten that curve and drive down that infection rate."
One thing has changed this time round in the third national lockdown, with the introduction of rapid Covid testing on a voluntary basis as part of the Government’s plans and strategy for fully reopening schools after the February half-term.
The successful rollout of testing has been partly thanks to the dedication and willingness of staff to take on key roles and train alongside medical volunteers, showing consideration for others as is one of the core values of Newfield School.
"We are very pleased we’re up and running and that staff are being tested,” Mr Jenkinson said.
“This school is a very different school to what it was six or seven years ago. The staff camaraderie, quizzes after school on a Friday which are attended by 30 or 40 staff, the phone call system to children at home – that’s what makes this place unique.”
Mr Dawson added: “The way the school is set up at the moment, staff are on site because they’ve chosen to be. All the staff that are on site today have volunteered to be here, we’ve not made that direction. The fact that we’ve had 65 staff members tested and they’ve come on site to support us and look after our young ones is great.”
Currently, only staff have been tested through the new programme with plans to test students in the near future.
This could, however, all change as Public Health England (PHE) said on Monday that it is no longer clear whether the risk of exposing pupils through daily contact testing is worth the benefits.
In a statement, ministers said schools should continue testing staff twice a week where possible and to test pupils twice when they return to school.
It is this day to day change in guidance from the Government that has proved most difficult for the leadership team at Newfield, as Mr Dawson explained.
"At least when they announced a new lockdown it gave us clarity for at least the half term,” he said.
“We knew what half term was going to look like, although lockdown was a blunt instrument and really hard actually it gave us some clarity because we knew what it would look like and what we would be doing for the pupils.
"But, it’s the constant change so it would be interesting to see what the roadmap to reopening looks like.”