First steps back to normality as schools welcome back pupils to classrooms

Children and teenagers across the region have returned to classrooms this week as the slow journey back to normality begins.

The physical reopening of schools, which began today, is the first step in a series of moves by the Government to take the country out of the coronavirus lockdown.

Stringent measures are in place at schools in the region in order to contain the spread of Covid; including the thorough cleaning of buildings, the use of face masks and testing kits.

Headteachers said their pupils appeared genuinely happy to go back to school and reunite with their friends and teachers following months of disruption, virtual learning and separation from the classroom - which has been hard and unprecedented for students and staff.

Sukhjot Dhami, principal at the Beacon Hill Academy, which is a secondary school in Sedgley, Dudley, said: "I am absolutely delighted we have finally managed to get our learners back into school."

In a bid to manage the safe return of Beacon Hill Academy's 1,100 children, the secondary school has welcomed them back in a staggered approach, with different year groups invited in at different times.

Children will be tested at three different times in the school's makeshift mass testing site, set up in its drama studio, before pupils will be handed self-administered Covid testing kits, at which point more will be allowed back together.

Mr Dhami, who became principal in May, said the delicate procedure was all about managing any potential outbreaks. A total of 4,000 testing kits have arrived at the school to be given to students, with seven in each pack. Children will be asked to take them every two days, although this is not mandatory.

They will also be required to wear masks inside classrooms and stick to learning bubbles.

Rosa Shadforth-Groucutt, 16, with a Covid-19 self test kit

On Monday, the school's Year 11 students returned to classrooms, including Bradley Totney, 16, Rosa Shadforth-Groucott, 16, and Evie Bourton, 15.

Evie said: "It will take us a while to adjust because of the routines and everything. Distance-learning was good, the school did everything they could with pre-recorded and live lessons.

"But there is nothing like being in school with actual people. It has been really nice to see everyone and see teachers.

"It is really good that we have come in to school now. In the three months left, we can really prove to teachers who have predicted our grades why we deserve the grades."

Rosa said: "I think it will take a bit of adjustment to get back because we have been so used to sitting down and getting up when our first lesson starts."

Bradley added: "It is obviously much better than being at home. You do segmented tests so we had one on Friday so we could return to school today, we have one on Wednesday and then we have one more on Monday. After that, we get the boxes. Then we can return to school as normal."

The testing operation onsite is manned by a rotation of 35 school staff who have undertaken six NHS modules to receive training.

The makeshift hub appeared almost like an NHS facility, with eight private booths and collection points for swabs.

Andi Lynch, the assistant headteacher who is overseeing the testing site, said: "We have had great support from the Dudley Academies Trust in order to train staff and maximise capacity.

"From our perspective when learners come in, we want the process to be efficient and to place them at ease."

Mr Dhami said: "We are following the highest of standards of safety, making sure we have got the right PPE [personal protective equipment], the right screens, even to the point we have got the right flooring. You cannot have carpeted flooring, you have to have non-porous ones."

He added: "I have been very much comforted by the fantastic staff here.

"We are really looking forward to returning to some normality and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

"It is a case now of us being able to support our learners in the final few months, particularly the Year 11 students."

Elsie Turrell-Taylor, six, at Landywood Primary School, Great Wyrley

At Landywood Primary School, in Great Wyrley, Walsall, all of the school's 440 pupils returned on Monday.

Among them were Elsie Turrell-Taylor, aged six, Oliver England, seven, Eva Brotherton, seven, and Ronnie Dummelow, eight, who were all excited to be back.

Unlike secondary schools, Government guidance says children do not need to wear face masks in primary schools.

Andrew Clewer, headteacher at the primary school, said: "It is really lovely to have all the children back. I think it is almost a step in everyone's lives going back to normality.

"I think, for us, it is that first step in society moving back. It was great to see all their smiling faces, they were all happy to be back."

At Westfield Community Primary School, in Wombourne, bright balloons were left outside the school gates to welcome children back.

Bright balloons outside the school

Other teachers at schools around the region also welcomed the return of pupils to classrooms.

Nikki Clifton, headteacher at Kinver High School, in Kinver, near Stourbridge, said: "Already today we have all Year 10s ,11s and 12s tested and ready for normal lessons following their tests last week and this morning, by midweek all students will have been tested and back in school.

"It has been a phenomenal effort by my team putting together our test centre and administering so many tests, I am so proud of how hard they have worked putting our students first yet again."

Woodthorne Primary School headteacher Tom Hinkley with Miss Sophie Watts, Rosie Birch, Arna Donoway, Caesar Robertson-Ellis and Amanda Shakes

Caroline Sutton, headteacher at Crestwood School, in Kingswinford, said: "In the next 48 hours all Crestwood School students will be in school during their allotted timeslot for their test.

"We are really looking forward to seeing everyone. Students with negative tests will then be in school for lessons from Wednesday onward.

"In the mean time a full timetable of virtual lessons will continue. It is going to be a very busy week."

Ronnie Dummelow, aged eight, at Landywood Primary School

Gareth Lloyd, headteacher at Pedmore High School, in Stourbridge, said: "We had a very busy week last week testing all students to ensure they could all be in school today.

"We have a fabulous testing team of 27 staff and community helpers who all volunteered to support our students and help them resume their face to face learning.

"By the end of today over half of the school would have had their second tests and the whole school tomorrow, our aim is to get every student tested three times by the end of the week and we are well on track."

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