Coronavirus: Schools in Wales return to a 'new normal'

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Pupils in their bubble at Barry Island Primary School
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Pupils in their bubble at Barry Island Primary School

It's back to school in Wales - but not quite as we knew it before.

The "new normal" in classrooms means working in bubbles and limited contact with pupils outside their group.

But parents and teachers have welcomed the staggered return - this week and into next week - following six months of disruption due to coronavirus.

Head teachers said it was about reassuring pupils to ensure they were safe and happy before starting to address the learning they had missed.

'I'm a little but nervous but excited to get back'

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Teachers will be focusing on children's wellbeing

Matt Gilbert, head teacher of Barry Island Primary School, said the three weeks back before the summer holidays, with small groups, had been a useful time to test things out.

There are staggered start times and year groups - and the school has four entrances, which will help limit contact between different groups.

"Already, the children are very excited and parents are keen for them to come back," he said.

"The important thing from our point of view is to have a recovery plan - firstly to support children with their own wellbeing, so they're not anxious and concerned, next is to focus on numeracy and literacy, so they're where they need to be, and to support them."

Renee and Niamh Gwatkin
It's really important for the children to come back to school. It's been almost six months and it's time, so I'm confident.
Renee Gwatkin

Parent Renee said it had been almost six months and it was "time" and important that children like her daughter Niamh went back to school.

"We participated in home schooling. I believed in getting the children into a routine, we were still getting up in the mornings as if going to school - I can think of one who maybe didn't appreciate it!

"We completed work on a daily basis and then we stopped when it was the holidays," she said.

"But Niamh's been like a bottle of pop the last few weeks, excited to be back, it's really healthy and good for their mental health."

Niamh said: "I'm a little but nervous but excited to get back to see my teachers and friends."

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Pupils will face a few changes, including at break times and lunchtimes

Another parent Sarah said it was great to see all the children with smiles: "I won't lie, it's not been easy doing reading, writing and maths - I'd forgotten a lot of it myself. I hadn't realised how difficult the job of a teacher was, so maximum respect.

"The biggest difference is how they have lunch - they've still got their same class buddies, the same faces and teachers."

The biggest issues at home for her two children were "boredom" and "too much noise" but they still had time to see friends and go to the beach.

Paul Smith, year 4 class teacher, said it would be strange just to be seeing a bubble of children and not all members of staff but it was an exciting time.

"A lot of work has gone in behind the scenes - the guidance has been brilliant from the authorities, we're excited and raring to go."

He said they would perhaps also embrace more technology in future, as they had with home-working, and look to creative ways of teaching.

"As long as we're safe, and the children are happy, we'll do what we need to do," he added.

'As normal as possible'

At Roath Park Primary School in Cardiff, head teacher Jonathan Keohane, said they had to make learning "fun and safe" but to appreciate there might be anxiety among children and staff.

"We're trying to make it as normal as possible," he said.

"Children spend almost six hours a day in school so we're trying to make the school like it was before March - we want them to feel at home, comfortable and to have their routine."

Meanwhile in Gwynedd, Arwyn Williams, headteacher of Ysgol Tryfan, a secondary school in Bangor, said: "The main challenges have been the lack of time we have had to prepare for some of these changes, specifically the masks, that was introduced quite late in the day."

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Ysgol Tryfan's headteacher Arwyn Williams said the main challenge was preparing with limited time

"We had to adapt there. There was a bit of uncertainty regarding school transport for a while as well," he said.

"We knew it was going to be challenging coming back in September, we knew we had to plan and do everything possible to keep pupils safe.

"When we have late changes it makes it increasingly difficult."

Education Minister Kirsty Williams said children returning to school was "critical" for their development and health and that "every precaution" had been taken to minimise risk.

Safety precautions in schools include increased cleaning and reduced movement and contact between groups.

She also added that the Welsh Government was working with councils on the "cost implications" of the increased use of face coverings - and said the government was "ready to make its contribution to this".