Family & Education

What we have done to welcome children back to school

The head of JFS, the UK's largest Jewish school, on how it planned for the return of pupils this week


I can remember even as a child preparing to go back to school for the start of the new academic year. It generally involved new pencil case purchases, some new bits of uniform and maybe a pair of shoes if my feet had grown over summer. The shopping expedition was usually set aside for the inevitable rainy day at some point in the holidays. I never gave much thought to what the teachers might be doing to prepare for the start of school.

This year back to school preparations are somewhat different to previous years and on a much grander scale in schools across the country. Despite the sporadic, unusually timed and often changing guidance emanating from the Department for Education, I am confident that the hard work and ongoing preparations put in place by the staff at JFS will ensure that we can help students get back into the routine of learning as quickly as possible.

Reopening a school the size of JFS is not without its challenges in these circumstances but we have focused on three key areas: environment, education and emotions.

Managing the reopening of JFS begins with travel; it has taken most of the summer to receive confirmation from Transport for London and guidance from the local authority to help ensure our students, the vast majority living outside the borough, have the means to get to school. We have extra buses and are also encouraging those coming by car to park and walk the final distance to school to reduce congestion and maintain friendly neighbourhood relations.

Taking advantage of a spacious campus, the school has been divided into year-group capsules where, with the exception of specialist subjects, teachers will go to the students to minimise movement around the building. Students arriving in the morning will wait until their staggered entry time to be invited into the building and be directed to wash or sanitise their hands.

Last week I made the decision that anyone inside the building will be required to wear their mask in communal spaces, while learning in the classroom will be mask -free but in rooms arranged to minimise the spread of possible infection. Lunch will be at staggered times and served already boxed and, with the help of staff and additional cleaners, communal areas such as dining rooms, laboratories and PE changing rooms will be cleaned between classes.

Our priority is to get students learning again and ensuring that students who may have fallen behind in the last few months receive the support and guidance they need from their teachers. Using information collected from assessments prior to the summer, we have a good idea where each student is and will monitor and review this in the first few weeks.

Our new and larger year-7 cohort (with a bulge class this year) will undertake the regular base line testing in their first few days to provide us with similar starting points for them. These are assessments that in previous years they would have completed on a Sunday morning sometime in June.

Our first review point will be only a few weeks later. Young people have a great deal of brain plasticity, meaning that even if they have fallen behind, a few weeks of school routine back in the learning zone should enable them to catch up quickly.

And, of course, there is the emotional support that will be needed at different levels for different students and staff. Everyone has had their individual Covid experience ranging from grappling with online learning, a hiatus from a social environment, anxiety about rekindling friendships and a great deal of loss.

Not to detract in any way from families who have experienced bereavements during this time, many of our students will have encountered various types of loss since lockdown began. These include the loss of rites of passage, whether marking religious occasions, school-leaving events or trips to Israel; the loss of the opportunity to demonstrate their own achievements, the loss of friendships and human interaction. Our staff have also had their own personal challenges to address.

We need to acknowledge, not ignore these experiences and accept that people respond differently to such events. Our role as teachers is also to model resilience both for what has passed and what may be yet to come.

Planning for reopening includes contingencies for educational provision in the event of resurgence of high levels of the virus locally. Teachers have prepared for four different scenarios that will take into account everything from full opening to full closure, though the latter is not a place to which any of us would wish to return.

Reflecting on the weeks that are to come, I believe that the key to a successful reopening is to be flexible in our approach. By continuing to review what is working and what might need changing we will be able to create as smooth a path as possible.

It will take partnership and co-operation and recognition that some students will take longer to adapt to the re-establishment of structure and boundaries. With our eye on the most important goal of education I know we will all play our part to ensure a successful school year ahead.

Rachel Fink is headteacher of JFS

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