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'Air of optimism' as all pupils return to schools

A Maidenhead head teacher has said that there is an ‘air of optimism’ after schools reopened to all pupils following the third COVID-19 lockdown.

Monday marked the start of the Government's roadmap to normality, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanting to eradicate all social COVID restrictions by Monday, June 21.

Schools and colleges were the first to reopen their doors to all pupils on March 8 following the country's latest lockdown, which began back on January 5.

However, there has been some concern over staff safety, with teachers not yet offered the COVID vaccine.

For months, pupils were either learning at home or travelling to school if they fell into the category of vulnerable or were the children of key workers.

Dave Rooney, executive head at Lowbrook Academy in Cox Green and Holy Trinity School in Cookham, says he is feeling happier about returning this time compared with the end of the first lockdown.

“This is different. After lockdown one, we had no guidance or mitigation measures. We were a lot better prepared this time,” he said.

“We were unhappy last time, but that is not the case now. They [the Government] have given us two weeks’ notice and updated us regularly. At least we know what we need to do.

“Last time, we pretty much had nothing.”

He added: “Do I feel safe? Yes I do, but not all teachers feel the same. I am lucky that the teachers here are supportive of opening. It is a bit of a catch 22.

“At some point we had to open. We know we are safest at home, but we do not feel unsafe at school, to be honest with you.”

Mr Rooney added he has been impressed with the behaviour of students since their return.

“They have been well-behaved, engaging, pleased to see their friends, staff, and the teachers,” he said. “School is without a doubt the best place for them.”

He added: “I do not believe in all this ‘they will never catch up’. I believe our profession is far too good for that.”

On vaccines for teachers, Mr Rooney - pictured below after the first lockdown - believes that all teachers over 50 should have been offered the jab.

“That would be my honest opinion,” he said. “The working environment will be a much happier place for them when they are all done.”

“One good thing is the vaccine programme is moving at pace, and some of my staff have been vaccinated through that route already.”

Under Government plans, secondary school pupils (years seven and above) are being asked to take regular tests to help slow the spread of the virus.

Secondary students will also be asked to wear face masks in lessons, a move which has been criticised.

And in an effort to ensure children catch up, the Government has floated the possibility of longer school days and shorter holidays.

Cathrin Thomas, head teacher at Cox Green School, said that an onsite testing team of 18 people have been ‘no less than incredible’.

“It has been a steep learning curve for everyone involved but we have risen to the challenge with gusto and are so proud of what we have achieved in such a short space of time,” Ms Thomas said.

“Staff have shared that they are reassured by the robust testing and the health and safety procedures onsite, and we have now begun the process of home testing twice a week for staff.

“This will be rolled out to students after the initial three tests completed in school.”

She added: “Without doubt, many members of the school community will have apprehensions about returning to school, however the wellbeing of students and staff continues to be a huge focus at Cox Green.”

Maggie Callaghan (below) principal at Desborough College, in Shoppenhangers Road, said: “It has been absolutely brilliant to meet and greet our students in person, to see their smiles, hear their voices and see how much they have changed since we last saw them in person before Christmas.

“There was a real buzz around the college - it was such a treat to hear the voices of teachers teaching and boys responding.”

Over in Marlow, head teacher of Sir Willliam Borlase’s Grammar School, Kay Mountfield, praised a volunteer army for sorting out COVID-19 tests for pupils before their return.

"I cannot praise highly enough the entire team who made this happen," she said. “It seems anything can be achieved when everyone pulls together.”

Miss Mountfield added on pupils returning: "School is so much more than attending lessons and following academic courses. It is about being with friends, learning together, enjoying wider activities and having fun. We are delighted to see them all back.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “It was lovely to see the happy scenes as all pupils and teachers returned to schools and colleges across the country.

“Early indications are that approximately 99 per cent of state-funded schools are open – with pupils returning to the classroom as planned.

“Being back in the classroom has huge benefits to pupils’ wellbeing, as well as their education. I am hugely grateful to schools and colleges for all the planning and preparation to make sure all students are able to return safely to the classroom.”

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