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Conversation with Jenny Otter and Caitlin Otter, Breakfast club Assistant and Midday Supervisors at Redwood Primary School
June 29, 2020

How have your roles changed since the school closures?

We were working as learning assistants as well, which we’re not doing any more. We’re still doing breakfast club and now we’re doing midday, but the set-up is different and we haven’t got as many children. Play is different because they’ve all got their own zones and different time slots for eating. Children have their own tables to eat on at breakfast club. At the beginning, it was very, very lonely and quiet. The numbers dropped significantly for breakfast club. We can’t interact with the children as much as we used to, as we can’t get as close.

There was one child sitting at a table on her own, looking really down and we asked are you ok? The child burst into tears. We can’t just say ‘ah, go and sit on that table with so and so’, which is hard. But what we did, was we shuffled the tables around so that she was near to children of her own age and then they could talk over the tables. It’s hard to watch them alone and looking lonely. We try not to hug them and the older ones know we can’t, but the little ones do need it sometimes. We keep talking to them, try to find ways to keep them interacting but not being too close.

What measures do you think have been most important in managing the emotional wellbeing of your school during the closures?

Keep it as normal as we can, whilst still keeping everything in place that we need to be doing. Especially for the little ones who don’t quite get it. Emotionally, they need normality, like familiar faces. Some have been coming since the start of lockdown and we have been doing breakfast club every morning, which means they are used to seeing us each day.

This one child was really excited when she thought her friends were coming back, but then a lot of her friends didn’t come back and some were in another pod and she found that hard. She’s not got the same teacher and she’s not seeing all of her friends, but we’ve been there consistently with no time off, so we’ve been her normal because we’re the ones she’s seen every day.

What measures do you think will be most important to maintain/ initiate on return to school?

We have to keep washing hands, keeping good hygiene, sanitising, trying to keep distance, although some children can’t. It’s helping that they have the same teacher and in pods with the same children, not necessarily in their class, but children their age again. They also love to go out and play on the playground. The playground is zoned off, but they still have the space to run around and be children, which is really important.

What has been most important in managing your own/ your family’s mental health during the lockdown period?

Staying in work, going to work every day, having that routine has helped. We were bored for the rest of the day, as we couldn’t go anywhere else. We live together and so we are not alone. Making everything normal for the children has meant that we just got on with it as normal as we could.

Conversation with Rohanne Nicholson, Learning Mentor at Redwood Primary School
June 19, 2020

How has your role changed since the school closures?

My role has become more virtual and telephone based, because it’s got to be and that’s really hard not having physical contact with parents or children. It’s especially hard with children because they can’t share their worries in the same way, because you’re very aware of their parents in the background. It’s hard when the children say ‘I miss you’, with physical contact being taken away. We’re ringing the families regularly, making sure everything is ok. Having contact is really important so that you can hear their voice. I have done some home visits, which is really nice, but we still can’t talk to them in detail. The children get excited to see you, even though we’re just standing in the drive, they know that you’re keeping them in mind and they can keep you in mind. I am also dealing with many more emails than I used to!

What measures do you think have been most important in managing the emotional wellbeing of your school during the closures?

The most important has been ringing and keeping in regular contact with parents, being there to speak to the children if they need to say hello. I also attend team around the school meetings virtually, which is really useful. The meetings help me keep in touch with services and they can tell me what’s available and where to go. I have been doing Early Help Assessments and have managed to secure a visit for a family. Services have worked really well together through all this and there are a number of places that I can ring for help, as well as our school SENCO. We have really worked together as a team within school and with outside agencies. I’ve also been able to have a laugh with colleagues in the nest, which has really helped me.

What measures do you think will be most important to maintain/ initiate on return to school?

It’s important to be available one to one for parents to talk to someone. It’s also really important to be nurturing, giving children the chance to talk. You have to think about wellbeing before you think about any type of education. We also have to get to know the children again, because although we’ve maintained some contact by calls and visits, they’ll be in regular contact when they’re back and a lot has changed. We need to focus on reassuring, that their feelings are normal and ok.

What has been most important in managing your own/ your family’s mental health during the lockdown period?

The most important for me has been having people around to work with, someone to talk to either over the phone, or socially distanced at work. Having contact with people can really cheer you up if you’re having a bad day.

Conversation with Alan Newbold, Premises Manager at Redwood Primary School

How has your role changed since the school closures?

It’s become critical to keep on top of the PPE and keep the cleaning up to get rid of the germs. We need PPE for everyone, to keep everyone safe. It’s been religious. It’s all about the logistics, keeping on top of all the orders, not letting anything run out. I’m going around the school 2/3 times a day checking everyone has what they need.

What measures do you think have been most important in managing the emotional wellbeing of your school during the closures?

Everyone is feeling it around school. Some staff are lonely and need to talk. The general feeling for staff is that there’s more focus on feelings; that they have been made bigger and under normal circumstances people could cope, but during Covid, they’re harder to deal with. It’s important that they talk.

What measures do you think will be most important to maintain/ initiate on return to school?

This is the norm now and needs to be the norm to keep everyone safe. We need to keep the virus controlled and keep (the new cleaning measures) up.

What has been most important in managing your own/ your family’s mental health during the lockdown period?

I’ve been coming into work, so I’ve had that routine. Getting to form a bubble and cuddle my grandchildren again has been the best thing.

Conversation with Lyndsey Shepherd, Head of Redwood Primary School
June 2, 2020

How has your role changed since the school closures?

I don’t know where you’d begin. It feels like my role was frozen in time when the schools closed back in March, with a lot of the focus on school improvement, curriculum development and strategic work put more or less on pause, without knowing when we’ll press play again. I recently updated the school improvement plan with the progress made so far this year, but I don’t know when we’ll be able to get back to that work. Where I had always been looking at the longer picture, now it’s all about the day to day, week to week, with fast movement and responses to national updates. I’ve gone from being the head of a large primary school, to the head of a virtual school, with some staff on site, some teams working remotely, large amounts of outreach going on whilst also delivering a ‘bricks and mortar’ school service to some children. The core focus has been managing the emotional health of staff, children families. Safeguarding has been an increasing part of everyone’s roles for those children we don’t see and there is also a lot of added administration such as COVID registers, which adds to workload. All the while, I am keeping an eye on the longer term goal, thinking about what September might look like and the next academic year.

What measures do you think have been most important in managing the emotional wellbeing of your school during the closures?

Keeping the communication open with everyone has been most important thing. The staff have anxieties about their own or their family’s health and are getting much of their information from the news. It’s been important to regularly communicate what our school is doing with the guidance that’s out there. If there are staff that we’re worried about, we’ve been regularly checking in, doing home visits at a social distance, delivering care packages etc. For children and families, we have a list of check-ins for class teachers and assistant heads, including some home visits. Our assistant head who is currently on maternity leave is uploading Dojo with mental health signposting and support daily, such as Bridge the Gap resources. We have said to parents that we’re here to talk to by phone and this communication is key. Many parents are struggling with home schooling and we’ve given support on how to restructure their days. For parents or children who are struggling with their mental health, we communicate regularly. Our priority is to keep everyone talking.

What measures do you think will be most important to maintain/ initiate on return to school?

At the moment, it’s about managing people’s emotions about coming back to school in the first place. People are worried about it being safe enough. We are focussing on developing and communicating clear risk assessments that allow staff and parents to trust that we’re not putting them at risk. We are going through all the measures and taking time to plan properly. We’ve increased our contact with staff, especially where they have childcare issues or health issues and thinking about wellbeing for those people. When we return, we’re ensuring that we have safe spaces for people to take time out, we’re also thinking about our bereaved staff, including counselling referrals where they might need it. For our children, mental health and wellbeing is the top priority on return to school. We know that some of their home environments may not have been conducive to learning and that some children may not have been doing a lot of school work. Our focus will not be on what the children haven’t done during lockdown but, instead, looking at moving forward from here and reassuring them that the world around them is a safe place to be. We’re going to be delivering a lot of R time with a focus on nurture, making use of our learning mentors and bringing in therapists, as we expect some children may be withdrawn. Of course we are anticipating academic regression, but also social and emotional regression in many of our children.

What has been most important in managing your own/ your family’s mental health during the lockdown period?

I’ve been reliant on my support network, which are my friends and family being on the end of the phone, to talk to and express frustrations. I have tried to walk every day, avoiding feeling trapped in four walls. In the early days, when sleep was proving more difficult, I used apps on my phone such as Headspace and Calm to help me unwind. I also filter the news as it can be so overwhelming - I only watch the 5pm briefing, not getting drawn into detail. For my own children, I give lots of reassurance that things will go back to normal and also that it’s ok not to complete all the school work. Providing some routine with home-schooling has been really important in our house too. We also do other things, such as baking cakes, housework and gardening, which are life skills and just as important as the academic work.

Conversation with Jane Calladine, Chair of PSG and Executive Headteacher of Parkview and Redwood Primary Schools Federation

How has your role changed since the school closures?

Since schools closed, my role is the same, but the focus has changed massively.  Usually, I work with our teams of inspiring leaders and staff across both schools, with the key focus of creating strategic improvement plans and putting them into action. Since school closures, my role has become sharply focussed on just one aspect of the role: supporting both Heads of School and other senior leaders in making a range of often very difficult decisions and plans, and keeping Governors fully informed of what we are doing. I have supported by monitoring the developing Covid 19 situation, interpreting daily Government and Local Authority bulletins for our schools, and discussing our response.  In daily telephone meetings I provide advice, encouragement, emotional and strategic support to these same inspiring school leaders, as they have worked incredibly hard with their own teams to plan in-school and home-school support for families, and provide emotional support to our many vulnerable families.   In this regard, our Opportunity Area Emotionally Healthy Schools project is currently more important than we could ever have imagined, and our Project Leader, Ingrid Sanfey, has developed new ways to support the City’s Emotionally Healthy Schools leaders.  In this, and all other Primary Strategy Group work, I have supported our projects to continue their work in new ways wherever possible.   

What measures do you think have been most important in managing the emotional wellbeing of your school during the closures?

Daily calls and meetings with leaders, making sure they never feel alone in making difficult decisions, or coping with bad news, has been the most important part of the support I have been able to give. Our leaders and staff have used their emotional intelligence, imagination, personal strength in this crisis to great effect.  They have worked together to identify pupils, families and colleagues who have needed emotional support, and in some cases, physical support in terms of food, medicines and learning materials. Good systems were put in place to keep in touch with all families and staff, and keep the children active and distracted.

It has been really important to understand the challenges many parents have faced due lost employment or the difficulty of trying to work from home while caring for children.  It has been particularly difficult for families and staff who are shielding others, whose family members have become ill, and sadly, for those who are bereaved.

For staff it has been important for us to say ‘Just do what you can’, recognising that many are trying to support other family members, for example young children or elderly relatives, while trying to work, which is enormously difficult.  I think they have all been brilliant, and I feel enormously proud of them.

What measures do you think will be most important to maintain/ initiate on return to school?

The safety of all will be our prime concern in preparations to return.  If children and staff do not feel safe, their well-being will be compromised.  Planning in terms of a curriculum that promotes strong emotional health and systems of pupil/staff emotional support for all will be essential.  The more we can do now to improve our families’ well-being, the better able they will be to move on positively from the crisis.

What has been most important in managing your own/ your family’s mental health during the lockdown period?

I think we all need the support of other people. I am fortunate to have the support of a very understanding husband, and family and friends who love to get together, so chatting with them on Zoom, whatsapp, House Party is a brilliant way to keep your spirits up.  We also need brain breaks from the difficulties, so I take a good long walk every day, and have started doing some drawing – inspired by all the art programmes online and on TV, which is very absorbing.

Delivering meals and learning resources to vulnerable families
April 20, 2020

Written by Simon Wild: DSLMH, Redwood Primary School

Since schools closed to the majority of children, my role in school has entirely changed, from a Year 4 class teacher and Designated Senior Lead for Mental Health, to ‘COVID-19 Logistics Manager’. Each day, I run a delivery service, driving to the houses of all our most vulnerable families to deliver free school dinners. We also had groceries donated by the local ASDA and I filled the boot of my car to deliver bags of shopping to some of our more vulnerable families. I have also been delivering home learning packs and stationary for families struggling with access to computers or the internet so that their children can continue to have an education through this crisis. It is clear that self-isolation means very different things to different families. Some families are stuck indoors, living in poor and crowded conditions.

As teachers, we are ambitious for our children and want them to continue to receive a quality education. However, from my visits, I could hear that some parents were feeling overwhelmed by the school work and regular prompts and suggestions from school about how they could home school their children. We have since reviewed the way we communicate with our families about home schooling to ensure that we are not adding additional pressure. We have slowed down with the amount of messages and work being sent out, giving them just enough to manage each day and no expectations that they need to do it all. We also encourage them to do enjoyable tasks instead, such as cooking or gardening together.

For many families, my visits are the only face to face interaction they have, and they are an opportunity to talk and get some emotional support. Visiting our families is proving to be invaluable and is doing a really good thing for mental health. Even after the first week, you can see the impact that isolation can have, which is why we’re are prioritising face to face contact with our most vulnerable families for as long as we are able to do so.

Review of the term ‘Self-Care’
April 9, 2020

During the week of 16 March, when schools were on the verge of closing, like everyone else I was having frantic thoughts about how to maximise my family's productivity during this time. I read lots online about home-schooling and thought about learning new languages, improving fitness, teaching the children to cook and discover new musical instruments. The options were overwhelming and I felt pressure to turn this period of uncertainty into a magical and productive experience for my children. I was ambitious with work, too. I wanted to rise to the challenge and worked out a timetable that allowed me to continue my full time hours on top of home-schooling and managing a household. 

Needless to say, it was too much. After crashing last week with illness, I have been forced to slow right down and accept that those ambitions were unrealistic. I then felt guilty, in particular my failure to take in the experience and appreciate time with my children. 

When I felt well again, I registered for an e-learning course by Pooky Knightsmith, where she spoke about self-care and its renewed meaning and significance for us in today’s context. Self-care isn’t necessarily about candle-lit baths and sewing projects. It’s really about the basics. It’s about ensuring we eat well, quality of sleep and of relationships, establishing a sense of control and it’s about being kind to ourselves, which for me (like many) is about managing guilt.

So now, I am allowing myself to find comfort and pleasure in simple things. I’m not attempting to learn anything new, but instead reconnecting with activities we’ve always enjoyed. I’ve picked up a new book, started drawing again and I am enjoying cooking. I’ve stopped timetabling myself and the children, whilst sticking to a consistent rhythm that involves rotations of work, time with the children and housework. We're going for a walk each day and the children and I have been photographing our favourite colours in nature and naming them.

Soon, the Easter break will end and the pressure of home-schooling will return. When it does, I will work to maintain the calm and rhythm that we’ve started to achieve this week. But for now, I’m off to do some baking.

Homeworking and home schooling primary aged children
March 26, 2020

It’s just gone 6 am. I’m listening to the birds and enjoying a hot cup of tea, knowing that this moment will not last long. Along with many others, I am attempting to juggle homeworking and home schooling young children.

With so many tools and resources out there for parents, it can be overwhelming, especially when you don’t have the energy or focus to properly read and research. But, one thing I am learning to depend on is PE with Joe Wickes. My eldest was sceptical at first and wouldn’t join in, but now he’s first in line and competing to get as many reps in as he can in the 30 seconds. The regular shout outs started off as annoying, but now give a much needed sense of connectedness with children and families across the world. If you haven’t tried it, I wholly recommend. Plus, it’s a pretty good workout!

I am lucky, because my children’s primary school have provided really comprehensive homework packs from day 1. Tapestry and Class Dojo allow me to upload their work, with their teachers giving comments and feedback. The Reception teacher is uploading videos of herself going through the phonics, as she would each morning in class. It takes the pressure off me having to find learning resources myself. But, effective home schooling means ineffective working and effective working means not effectively home schooling. Whilst navigating the guilt of being torn between two incompatible tasks, I am also managing the grief and worry that goes with living through a global pandemic, that has turned all our worlds upside down and risks the lives of loved ones.

As a single parent, there’s no one to pass my children on to when I feel like this, so I manage. I manage by stepping back and allowing the children to do what they want. I’ve discovered just how much physical activity my eldest needs. He spends hours in the garden each day, kicking a football around. He’s also independently motivated and imaginative. He’s writing a play and is working with my sister (a theatre director) to bring it to life. My youngest loves to paint. As a trained artist, I am amazed that I’ve never realised this before. He can spend hours with a paintbrush and a pile of paper, creating mini masterpieces and I am completely in awe.

I am behind with their curriculum work and I am behind with my own work. At the end of the day, we collapse in a heap in front of the TV and my youngest is in bed at least an hour after his bedtime. We have a timetable we don’t stick to and we’ve had some arguments. But, we’re ok. And for now, ok is good enough.