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A back to school like no other: Parents send their kids back to schools with mixed emotions

First day nerves

Normally the trips to the shops would have been done. The new shoes would have been bought, last year’s uniform would have been checked over to see if it would still serve and any dodgy items would have been replaced. There may have been a new lunchbox, a new pencil case and stationery. Mums and dads up and down the country would be breathing huge collective sighs of relief that the long summer of keeping little ones occupied was *finally* over. Those sending kids off to school for the first time or to a new school would be anxious about the loosening of the apron strings and/or whether the adjustment would go smoothly. This year’s back to school is, of course, different. Very different.

The long summer came on the back of a long spring. The challenge of keeping little ones occupied was supplemented by the even bigger challenge of educating them too, bringing with it a new appreciation of the job that teachers do. On the face of it, that collective sigh of relief at being able to pack the kids off to school should b e bigger and deeper than ever this time around. But this year the truth is more complex.

A new look for schools

A recent survey of school leaders by the National Association of Head Teachers found that 97% plan to reopen their schools to all pupils this term. The remaining 3% said they were planning transition periods for new pupils or phasing entry to lessen the worries of students and parents.

Schools will look different, with one-way systems, screens keeping pupils apart and staggered start and finishing times. Playground time will be different with fewer allowed out at any one time, games involving substantial physical contact discouraged and the bringing in of equipment used in such games (footballs and ping pong bats, for example) banned. Other traditional school items like pencil cases, sweets and toys are also banned on the basis that they can carry infection.

Many pupils will be given inductions, so they understand the new rules, such as staying in their “bubble” groups and where to use social distancing. After that, one of teachers first tasks will assess how much pupils need to catch up after a long absence and how their planning for the coming year may need to be altered as a result.

Back to school 2020-style brings with it a whole new set of concerns and rituals, not to replace those normal concerns but to add to them. For the government, for teachers, for parents and for students, the return to school brings new challenges, new opportunities, and new stresses.

The government POV: return to normality is much needed

The basic premise behind the returns (both to school and back into offices) that the government is encouraging is that the positives outweigh the negatives. In the case of schools, most governments around Europe, including ours, have concluded that the risk that a generation of children will lose out on crucial face-to-face teaching is greater than that of infections rising and a second wave.

While many parents and teachers fear face masks and other measures will not be enough to prevent a second wave, there is also a need to get parents back to work and a recognition that the online lessons delivered to pupils staying at home are neither good enough to guarantee childrens’ development, nor sustainable for most working parents.

If a child is not in school, they stand to lose far more than just a few months of learning. It could well put a huge dent in their future life chances. Education is a birthright, so let’s make sure we get all children back, back to learning, back to playing and back to being kids again.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, August 30th

And, broadly speaking, the British public were supportive of this point of view. When asked on August 26th, “As things currently stand (do you think schools in England and Wales should or should not fully reopen after the summer holidays?” some 65% felt that they should, 19% that they should not, with 16% remaining undecided.

The teacher POV: we’ll do what we’re asked to but that doesn’t mean we’re happy about it

[Full disclosure here: my wife and sister-in-law have both been teachers for thirty years so I’m perhaps more aware than most of the pressures facing those in the profession!]

Britain’s half a million plus teachers are the ones at the sharp end of the government’s plans. While they are, of course, committed to delivering in the best interests of the children in their care, it is only fair enough that they are concerned, both for the children and for themselves and their own families. Indeed, some 64% of teachers are worried about returning to school. A TES survey of six thousand teachers and other school staff uncovered huge levels of anxiety about return to classroom, with almost half (49%) “worried” about the impact school reopening would have on their own safety, and a further 15% actively “frightened”.

Moreover, they know the on-the-ground reality. All of the one-way systems and hand sanitisers in the world cannot overcome kids’ (particularly younger ones) natural inclinations to hug their friends, touch surfaces, get too close to each other, and generally be kids. That being said, leaders are, bullish:

” Leaders, teachers, and support staff have worked really hard to put protocols in place to ensure that it’s a safe as possible return to school. We hope that everything will go well, and the signs are at the moment that it’s a very calm, managed and positive return to school – and that’s good.”

Mary Bousted, Joint General-Secretary of the National Education Union

There is concern amongst educational professionals that the government is neither looking out for the safety of teachers, nor aware of the longer-term challenges and pressures that COVID will create.

While the government has suggested that Teachers should be tested for COVID twice a week this is primarily to reassure anxious parents that it’s safe to send their kids back to school, rather than for the safety of the teachers themselves.

And the NEU has flagged that the budgets of schools are being over-stretched: the significant additional costs of becoming COVID-safe may start to impact things like resources, recruitment and educational quality.

The parent POV: the return evokes mixed feelings

Homeschooling has placed a significant burden on the nation’s parents. According to government research:

  • On average, children completed 13 hours of learning using school-provided resources in the past week, though this varies significantly by age of child (10 hours for 5 to 10 years olds to 16 hours for 11 to 15 year olds).
  • Only half of homeschooling parents (49%) feel confident in their abilities to homeschool their children, though some felt they were doing a better job than the professionals:
  • Over half (52%) said their child was struggling to continue their education while at home, with 77% citing lack of motivation as one of the reasons.
  • A significant number of women felt that homeschooling was impacting their wellbeing (34%) or that of their children (43%).

Despite the stresses of homeschooling, there are also mixed feelings about the return, mainly from the safety point of view. A poll carried out by Mumsnet found that 58% of parents felt the DfE had not done enough to reassure them about schools reopening. These feelings were so pronounced that 1 in 6 parents said that they may not send child back to school, while one-third said they would remove their children from school if the infection rate starts to rise again.

Evidence from Scotland, where pupils returned several weeks ago, suggests this minority backlash could indeed materialise. Official statistics show one in 10 pupils is absent, although ministers and teachers have suggested cold and flu viruses are mostly to blame. While the government did initially state that it could fine parents who refuse to send their children back schools, it has more recently suggested that such measures would only be used as a “last resort” nearly half of parents (48 per cent) feel fines would be unfair.

The pupil POV: can’t wait to see my friends again but older kids worry about the impact on their future

Mostly, children have been looking forward to getting back to school, mainly to see their friends again, swap lockdown stories and just get back to some form of normality. However, there are misgivings too.

Many kids will have picked up on the concerns of their parents and are, therefore, concerned about infection both for themselves and for their family back home. Others are worrying about having fallen behind and about having to catch up or not being able to. This is particularly true of older children (aged 16 to 18 years). Some 64% of this group thought that continuing their education at home would negatively affect their future life plans.

Furthermore, some professionals are worried what will happen once the first wave of novelty at being back wears off:

There’s a real need to recognise the physical, mental and emotional impact of going back. It will be very new to go back into that full-on setting with 30 children in a class.

Dr Daniel O’Hare, British Psychological Society

Key learnings & opportunities for brands

A return to school is deemed to be a vital element of a return to normality: As schools and workplaces reopen for business, brands must resist the temptation to do the same: retailers will still need to be demonstrably COVID-safe, brands will still need to be sensitive in their communications and avoid any suggestion of complacency or tendency to overlook/ignore the events of the recent past.

Britain’s teachers need support too: brands can look to support and appreciate our teachers in much the same way that we all participated in #clap4ourcarers. Retailers could prioritise opening hours and access for educators, for example.

While parents recognise that their kids need to get back to school they are also anxious about it: brands that market to parents may need to accept that it will be impossible to get their full attention over the coming weeks or months. Their distraction will, though, make them receptive to timesaving and effort-reducing solutions that give them more time to devote to their kids’ wellbeing. They will also appreciate any support that brands can give them and will be looking to pamper themselves and to take care of their own wellbeing.

Kids will enjoy being school but may also find it stressful: brands that address the young should be prepared to address the questions and issues that Gen Z are struggling with: how to avoid becoming germaphobic and fearful of life having grown up in a time of infection paranoia, how to change the rules of personal interaction in a time of social distancing, how to make the mass participation events that this group so enjoys acceptable once more, and so on.

Older students are already concerned about how the various crises they are enduring (COVID is just one: the economy, Brexit and climate change are also on their minds) will impact their long-term futures: brands talking to teens and early twenty-somethings need to foster a sense of purpose and positivity about the future amongst their audiences. They should be looking to invest in the future of this group, both as potential employees and customers, by offering skills training, flexing business models to offer flexibility and change and by themselves helping to create a better future.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at UNLIMITED