Schools have always been about much more than timetables and exams, but the coronavirus outbreak has emphasised just how vital they are to the communities they serve.
At Pennine Way Primary in Carlisle, staff have been working hard to help families in their hour of need.
“We’re trying to make life as stress free as possible for the community,” says deputy headteacher Andrew Beattie.
With the help of several local businesses and charities, the school has provided weekly food parcels for local families. Staff and other members of the community are delivering door-to-door, while dozens of people now come to the school every Wednesday to collect food.
“There’s a big queue of people coming each week. It’s quite sad how desperately it is needed,” says Andrew.
“The area has high social and economic deprivation, and there are a lot of people who have lost their jobs. There are many with mental health issues as well and obviously this has exacerbated those issues.”
The food parcels are in addition to the daily free school meals, and the government’s voucher scheme.
“It’s hard to say what it’ll cost the school at the end of it but to us it doesn’t really matter,” says Andrew. “The most important thing is we know that children are being fed.”
Staff have also tried to keep spirits up by posting videos online. “Before coronavirus, one of the children had been in hospital, quite seriously ill, and we used to do a thing in our wellbeing room where we’d dance around with this big unicorn.
“Then, because we were phoning every single child every week, our wellbeing staff had spoken to us and asked if we could do the dance with the unicorn for everyone, just as a bit of fun.
“So, we did that, and it took off from there and parents just said it was taking their mind off things, being able to laugh at us. And that’s fine. It’s all about wellbeing, mental health.
“The fact is, if we can just make them laugh and they see a different side to us as well, rather than being this teacher, that Mr Beattie or Mrs Blair or Mrs Watson or whatever. They see us as a real person and we’re not this person who’s just teaching their kids.
“It is also just trying to make the kids see you all the time, so they know school has not just disappeared.
“The children are really missing their friends and that seems to be the big thing, rather than the actual worry about the coronavirus. So now we’re thinking about the next stage; we’re looking at the transition back into school and how we can proactively plan for this.
“We’ve already made sure the teachers and staff have done bereavement training and mental health training. We know we’re not going to be experts but it’s important that we at least know what to say and not what to say.
“We know there are people in the community that have already lost people. We are trying to think about how we do things when they come back. There’ll be no teaching in the first two weeks. It’ll purely just be getting back into routines, meeting their friends, having the time to talk if they want to talk; if they don’t want to talk that’s absolutely fine. We’ll be doing all of that first before we even contemplate getting into formal learning.”
A lot of parents are quite nervous about the transition from nursery to reception and obviously from Year 6 to secondary school. We've started to put things in place to help.
The school has always put a priority on the children’s wellbeing and now that’s more important than ever.
“We’re more interested in the children being happy first and foremost, and from our experience, if the children are unhappy, they’re certainly not going to learn anything, it doesn’t matter how good the teacher is. So, it’s all-around happiness and making sure they feel comfortable and safe because all those things have a massive impact from our experience on how a child learns.
“A lot of parents are quite nervous about the transition from nursery to reception and obviously from Year 6 to secondary school. We’ve started to put things in place to help, like virtual videos, virtual meetings with parents and liaison with secondary schools.”
One problem with planning ahead is the uncertainty over what will happen and when. “You just don’t know what the timings going to be. It’s so up in the air,” says Andrew.
However, for as long as lockdown continues, the school has committed to checking in on every one of its 488 children. “We are trying to keep in touch with all these children and that’s quite difficult when they’re not coming into school all time.
“We phone every child once a week, to check in on them, and make sure they’re doing okay.”
“For children with special educational needs, if the child has autism, say, it’s nice for them to speak to their support worker, one-to-one, to keep that link to school.
“Every teacher gets a weekly call, as well. The senior leadership team, six or seven of us on a rota, ring all the staff every week. It’s about trying to check on everybody’s wellbeing, I think it was all just a massive shock for everyone… it happened so quickly.”
But despite the shock, Andrew says there are some real positives to come out of the crisis.
“It’s strengthened our relationship with the community,” he says. “We had a good relationship with them anyway but the fact that we’re delivering food to them and going around to their house seeing that they’re alright has made the bond stronger.
"We are a big community and we all look after each other."
“They don’t have to be, but they have been so appreciative, especially under such stressful circumstances. People could easily snap but they’ve been so supportive to the school; you really couldn’t ask for anymore from the parents and from the children.
“I think that is what will get us through it. We are a big community and we all do look after each other.”
Once lockdown finally ends and the schools fully reopen, Andrew hopes there isn’t a swift return to league tables, inspections and targets.
“The worry is that it all kicks off really quickly and we go back to the status quo of government wanting things, pressurising people and so on. This has shown the benefit of slowing down a bit more, taking our time and looking after people. It’s important rather than just belting through life.
“I know a lot of our parents were feeling really stressed about having to become teachers at home and so we didn’t send out too much. We said to them ‘don’t worry about it, do what you can’.
“Parents should just try and enjoy this opportunity to have time with their children and all the baking and things you could never otherwise have done.
“You look at all the things the kids have done – there’s loads of stuff on our Facebook page – just things they’d never have done if they were at school – and they’re spending time with both mum and dad, or whoever else they have at home. That’s what we should all be focusing on right now.”