It felt like this week would never come.
After months of juggling work and home-schooling, many parents have been yearning for the day they could prepare a packed lunch, lay out uniforms, give their little cherubs a kiss goodbye and usher them out of the door and on to the school bus. Meanwhile, enjoying a few hours of peaceful bliss in a child-free home.
But, with the threat of coronavirus still looming and predictions of a second wave remaining ominous, some may feel apprehensive about sending their youngsters off to spend the day in a stuffy classroom with a load of other children.
Teachers have been making their final preparations to classrooms, implementing various social distancing measures to keep children safe. Questions remain though, about how easy it will be to get young people to follow the guidance.
Today the message from Express & Star readers is clear.
Most support the wholescale return of education this week across the West Midlands and Staffordshire.
And most are also very aware of the damage they feel may have been done already by the loss of education, which has stretched back many months for many, apart from the very haphazard relaunch that happened in schools prior to the start of the official summer holiday break.
About six in 10 of those questioned in an expressandstar.com poll supported the return to school, with less than a third against.
And about 70 per cent highlighted concerns both about the education of children and their mental wellbeing after being stuck at home.
For many families, the familiar routine of buying back to school clothes and equipment has kept them busy in the last week. Those picking up supplies with their children spoke of their hopes and fears as term time approaches again.
Samantha Dale from Codsall said it was a bit scary to be sending her seven-year-old son Will back to Lane Green First School, but said it was important to get the routine back.
She said: “He’s been getting a bit upset recently and his social aspect to being stuck at home is starting to get a bit much for him, so he needs to go back to school.
“The school have done a really good job of making everything ready, keeping us updated throughout lockdown and doing daily update videos with teachers and pupils.
“I did have a little moment recently, thinking ‘Oh my goodness, he’s going back to school’, so it’s not just him going back, I’m also anxious about not having him at home.”
For Debbie Ranger, the new school year was an especially emotional time due to her four-year-old son Mackenzie starting at St Mary and St John’s Catholic Academy in All Saints.
She said the work done by the school, as well as her daughters Keesha and Nevaeh’s schools at Colton Hills Community School and St Edmunds had helped her feel more comfortable about them going back.
The 37-year-old from All Saints said: “They’ve all done a lot of work with cleaning and prepping the schools for when they get back, changing the equipment and things like that.
“I’m not as anxious as I was as Mackenzie got to go back to nursery and it was good to see they were keeping the social distancing and teaching the kids to wash their hands.
“He’s very excited to be starting school and while it’ll be different to what school normally is, but they’ve been out for six months and it’s just good for them to have a normal routine.”
Andy Sweet from Wolverhampton said he was nervous to see his nine-year-old son Joshua go back to Jane Lane School in Willenhall, but also said it was the right time to get back to normal.
He said: “I think everyone has fallen a bit behind a little bit, so I do think it’s time everyone started to play catch-up and get back to a bit of normality.
“Jane Lane has done an excellent job getting ready, with social distancing and hand sanitisers, so I’m pretty happy that they’re ready for him to come back.
“He’s also pretty excited as he’s missed his friends and his football, so he’s definitely looking forward to getting back, as am I, as I don’t want him missing out on any more education.”
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Lucky Kaur was out shopping for school equipment with her two children Arjan and Imogen and said she was anxious about them going back, but also said it was long overdue.
The 40-year-old from Wednesfield said: “I’m a little anxious as I obviously don’t want them to catch anything and I do think it’ll be a shock to the system for them to go back.
“However, I do think the return is long overdue as they have missed a lot of education at Wednesfield High for Arjan and Coppice Farm for Imogen.
“The schools have both done the necessary work to get ready, although I think Wednesfield have been better at communicating that Coppice Farm have.”
Caroline Poole from Tividale was shopping for school clothes with her six-year-old son Reece and said she hoped everything would be for Reece at Oakham Primary.
She said: “There’s a mixture of apprehension and excitement, but I was more concerned about his education, so I’m happy to see him go back as we can’t stay like this forever.
“From my point of view, the school have done a brilliant job at getting ready to welcome children back, with a one way system and sanitisers.
“I’m just thankful that his education is going to start again as it’s the most important thing for me and as long as he’s safe, then everything will be OK.”
While term time officially starts in the West Midlands and Staffordshire tomorrow, most schools are taking advantage of a training day to get staff used to the new school environment and ensure they are confident about measures to keep students safe. That means school gates will become busy again on Wednesday, with parents being urged to be responsible and to observe social distancing when dropping off and picking up.
It has been a busy time for schools as they come up with ways to keep children safe, especially for those in older buildings with small corridors.
The National Association of Head Teachers carried out a survey ahead of he new school year that found that 96 per cent of schools are organising regular additional cleaning of classrooms and school premises.
The vast majority are also looking to create pupil bubble groups, with staggered lunchtimes and break times as well as different start and finish times. The data also suggests that 83 per cent are installing signs to direct pupils and parents and 79 per cent are installing additional hand-washing or hand sanitation units.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said the union’s figures showed that school leaders and their teams had worked “incredibly hard” over summer to get schools ready for the autumn term.
He added: “We know that parents and families want their children to return, but we also know that confidence is a fragile thing.”
In an appeal to parents and carers, Mr Whiteman said: “Please do not let the very public political difficulties and arguments cloud your confidence in schools. School leaders and their teams have continued to do all that has been asked of them.”
Education Secretary and South Staffordshire MP Gavin Williamson said: “Getting all children back into classrooms is a national priority, and these findings shine a light on the brilliant work going on across the country to make sure our schools are ready.”