Sheffield headteachers on adjusting to new normal and managing a Covid-safe secondary school

Pupils in Sheffield returned to classrooms earlier this month to start a new academic year - but for many it wasn’t quite how they remembered it.
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Schools across the city are adjusting to a ‘new normal’ with heightened cleaning regimes in place and rules on face coverings as students move between lessons.

Adapting to the changes has proved challenging for some, but overall they have been welcomed by parents, teachers and even pupils who are keen to return to learning after six months of disruption due to coronavirus.

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Joe Birbeck, headteacher of Westfield School, said it has been about implementing measures to ensure the school remains a safe environment for pupils while still being able to function as an educational establishment.

Science 7x1 class at Westfield School with Sarah Hasketh.Science 7x1 class at Westfield School with Sarah Hasketh.
Science 7x1 class at Westfield School with Sarah Hasketh.
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There are sanitising stations in each classroom – and the school in Beighton is divided into wings which helps to limit contact between different year groups and minimise the potential spread of coronavirus.

“Some of the systems that we had in place to support students at social times we were quite well set up for but there have been a few changes as well,” Mr Birbeck said.

"We took a decision that, while we couldn’t stagger the start times of the day, we could divide up the places that students go to when they arrive.

Head of Westfield School Joe Birkbeck.Head of Westfield School Joe Birkbeck.
Head of Westfield School Joe Birkbeck.
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"We’re really lucky in Westfield that we’ve got lots of space. We’re organised into wings so when each student arrives they head to a wing or corridor that is specific to their year group and stay there for form time.”

To further reduce the contact between year groups, the school has removed morning break time during which students would usually be allowed to mix in places such as the dining hall and the corridors.

He added: "We felt that was the better thing to do rather than have the challenge of dividing the space and managing the site at that time.

"We spoke to the students, parents and carers and discussed it with the staff and we agreed it would make sense to take that breaktime out of the day and what we’ve done as a consequence is move lunchtime forward. Now students have a staggered lunchtime, so they only ever socialise with their own year group and that also makes it very manageable.”

Science 7x1 class with Sarah Hasketh at Westfield SchoolScience 7x1 class with Sarah Hasketh at Westfield School
Science 7x1 class with Sarah Hasketh at Westfield School
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There is a staggered exit strategy in place, with the younger students in Year 7 and 8 leaving before the older pupils.

Year 11 pupils, however, stay on an extra hour to allow for additional study as they head towards their GCSEs.

“I think anybody would be lying if they said it was very easy to implement some of the measures,” Mr Birbeck said. “It took us a few days once the government guidance was published to think carefully about how we could adapt at Westfield.

"Once we’d taken the time to read it carefully and understand the limitations placed on us, but also the opportunities we could still give students, then we were quite buoyed by it really because we felt we could still offer a great deal within the context of the changes.

PE class 11d\pe2 at Westfield SchoolPE class 11d\pe2 at Westfield School
PE class 11d\pe2 at Westfield School
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"But, we couldn’t have done it as successfully as we have without our students and their positive attitude. Additionally, the support of parents – sending the students with their own hand sanitisers and face coverings and being supportive with the changes – that’s been really positive for us as well.”

Some students at Silverdale School, in Bents Green, had initial concerns over returning but headteacher Sarah Sims said it was about listening and reassuring them with individual support and mentoring and now the vast majority are in and enjoying learning once again.

Like Westfield, it has introduced a number of measures including staggered lunch and finish times in order to keep year groups separate.

Ms Sims said: "We’ve got lots of hand sanitising stations so anytime a student goes into classroom or dining room there is supervised hand sanitising. There is also more hand washing after students have used any equipment and a new one way system around school.

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"We’ve had to adapt some of our teaching practices too to ensure that students remain safe. During all lessons and social times students are in their year group bubbles.

"We’re proud of our broad curriculum and are still offering a whole range – doing PE, music, drama, art, design and technology, science – and are still doing practicals in those subjects but we’ve had to adjust the teaching to ensure they are covid-secure. That’s been an interesting process.”

Science 7x1 with Sarah Hasketh at Westfield SchoolScience 7x1 with Sarah Hasketh at Westfield School
Science 7x1 with Sarah Hasketh at Westfield School

Subject specialist teachers are still moving within year groups to ensure that the students receive the expert teaching they would before the Covid-19 pandemic.

But, Silverdale has produced guidance to ensure they keep students safe when doing so – remaining at least two metres apart from the students, with newly rearranged classrooms to help with this.

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The school has also invested in visualisers – which combine the functions of video camera, overhead projector and magnifier in a single piece of equipment – to allow for the demonstration of practical lessons without students having to gather near the teacher.

Ms Sims added: “All students also wear face coverings in the corridor and the students have been absolutely amazing in adjusting. Having been here for nearly four weeks now there are lots of differences to the school day but they’ve just got on with it.

"The vast majority are bringing face coverings with them and, other than needing a few reminders, they’re complying because they understand how it is important it is and they value school.”

Parents looking to enrol their child into either school are reminded to pre-register to attend the virtual open evenings through the individual school websites, with Silverdale School’s being held on September 29 and Westfield on September 30.

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