Quarantined library books and boxed-in teachers: First pupils in England return to school in coronavirus era

For the last couple of days Liz Mills, an English teacher at Bosworth Academy in Leicestershire, has been receiving a stream of texts from teacher friends across the country.

“They keep asking me ‘What’s it like to be back?’,” she says. “‘Is it really dystopian? Is it really horrible?’”

She and her colleagues at the school of 1,600 pupils were among the first in England to return to the classroom after the summer holidays. Which is to say, they were among the first teachers to return for a full intake of students since the world was turned upside down by coronavirus in March.

By a quirk of history, schools in Leicester and the surrounding county break up a week earlier than the rest of England and go back back a week earlier, in August.

It means the area offers the first glimpse of the new educational norms to be faced by pupils and parents everywhere else from next week: bubbles, one-way corridors, sanitiser stands and, in some classrooms, pupils separated by Perspex sheets.

“I keep texting them back to say it’s so nice to return to some normality and just to be teaching properly again and actually see pupil’s faces, other than through a screen,” says Mills. “It’s a relief. It’s a joy, if I’m honest.”

As she speaks, we are sitting by an open window looking across a courtyard in which year 11 pupils are talking, shouting and laughing at lunch. “Listen to that,” she says of suggestions that students may be nervous about their return. “Does that sound like teenagers who are terrified?”

Bethan Pottle, Fabien Faria and Alice Kelly are back at Bosworth Academy
Bethan Pottle, Fabien Faria and Alice Kelly are back at Bosworth Academy

It decidedly does not.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about visiting Bosworth Academy is just how unremarkable many of the Covid-related changes actually feel.

“It’s pretty much just the same as before,” notes year 13 student Alice Kilby. “But with sanitiser.”

Her friend, Bethan Pottle, points out that break times are now staggered for different year groups: “So there are fewer annoying little kids running around,” she says.

The biggest visible shifts at Bosworth – which is in the village of Desford but serves a catchment area half in and half out of Leicester’s lockdown zone – are those you’d probably expect.

Year groups have been bubbled; corridors have been made one-way; and masks are to be compulsory in communal areas from next weekly. From 8.15am each day, 30 of the 90 teachers here will stand outside with sanitiser ensuring all arriving pupils clean their hands. In regular classrooms, desks have been separated and turned to face the front but in some – such as art rooms where big desks are required – Perspex has been placed between stools.

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