Adjusting to the 'new normal' of school life at Longdendale

Schools are now breaking up for the summer holidays but for the vast majority of students it won't mean saying farewell to staff and friends at the gates - or even at the classroom door.

Instead, after lockdown, it will see those students who have remained at home closing their laptops on school communications for a few weeks rest from online learning and ‘Microsoft Teams’ meetings.

For many staff however, summer will be a different story, representing less of a break and rather a time to start work on how to open for all pupils this September, with the numerous preparations and changes that will require around classrooms, class sizes and logistics.

However, before the summer holidays loomed, some students were able to go back to school for a few weeks before the break at least, with Year 10s returning to the classroom in June, joining the children of key workers already there - although not literally.

Longdendale High School kindly allowed us an exclusive look inside to discover what the typical school day for Year 10s has looked like, plus find out about the many changes that have taken place to ensure the school provides a Covid-safe environment for staff and students alike. Nigel Skinner and Anthony Devlin went along...

Most visits for our reporters and photographers to Longdendale over the years have generally been to record major events or achievements. That goes for all schools.

GCSE results day, proms, end of year awards...

So the first really noticeable thing stepping out on a tour of Longdendale High School last Thursday morning at 9.30am, alongside assistant head and languages teacher Nicola Moffatt   (albeit at a 2m distance), was just how quiet everywhere was.

The usual hustle and bustle of school life, young people chattering, some shouting maybe, laughter and excitement, a member of staff calling kids to order - are now nowhere to be seen or heard.

Rather, there is an eerie silence as we step down the corridors and pass totally empty classrooms - the only sound our own steps and voices.

A school without its children is like... well, a pond without water.

There are a few signs of life at the edges though, tiny echoes of what used to be. 

The odd member of staff is spotted popping along a corridor ahead. Four boys - the children of key workers - head out into one of the yards with a ball on a break - where once there would normally have been ten times as many.

But this ‘new normal’ has been school life for many months now.

Further safety measures have been introduced to allow Year 10s the opportunity for their recent return.

We proceed along the now one-way corridor system - a system that extends around the entire school in fact, introduced to negate the opportunity of anyone passing in the opposite direction - and passing on the virus.

Numerous warning signs adorn the walls and floors, all carrying key messages about the importance of remaining two metres apart at all times and washing hands regularly.

Eventually we reach the first Year 10 classroom.

There is no one inside. 

For a classroom that would once have held 30, there are now 12 individual tables, all with a student’s name, and 12 chairs. Each table is 2m apart from the next.  

All awaiting the 12 students who will spend their full working day - and only working day of the week that they will come to school - at their designated station.

We sanitise our hands as we go in - just as the students must do - as well as on the way out. There are hand sanitisers inside the entrance to each classroom now.

Nicola explains that, once in for their allotted time, the Year 10s spend their full day facing forward, at their desk - only ever leaving the room for a ‘staggered’ break.

Any equipment that is required is given out - but not taken back.

There are far fewer paper hand-outs now, but if there are, they are placed on the desks for the students at least the day before, meaning when students do take their seat and touch that piece of paper - 24 hours or more will have passed.

The planning, scheduling is all meticulous, regimental - and time consuming - with deep cleans in between - all geared at ensuring there can be no spread of the virus.

Nicola explained: “All of the desks face forward and are all 2m apart. Each is labelled so a learner will know which station they are working at every single week. It’s only them that use that classroom.

“Our largest pod has 15 attending in our largest classroom and we have tried to make it future proof, so we have allocated big enough classrooms with enough desks for a quarter of the year group to be split into three each time, so if a parent then wanted to send their child in there would be capacity to do so without having to rearrange anything or rethink processes.”

Only the core curriculum is taught within the allotted day - so maths, English, languages, sciences and business studies. 

The days of dance and drama right now seem sadly a distant memory.

But within all of this change, the students who have been able to return are hugely grateful says Nicola, evidently appreciating all the more their short time in the school - and being all too aware of what has gone.

The take-up has been good too - no student in Year 10 has to return, they do have a choice and there remains naturally a nervousness among some students and parents - but 77 per cent of the year group has been back in to the school.

The Year 10 group itself has been divided into quarters - each quarter permitted to come to school on one of four days each week - Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. 

Wednesday is ‘deep clean’ day.

Each child is allocated to a ‘pod’ - and for Year 10s there are three pods each day. 

There are also two key worker pods each day and an ‘Intervention’ pod - for those children needing help in catching up and some extra support.

Starting school at 8.30am, each student lines up in their ‘pods’ - 2m apart - to be escorted to their classrooms.

Sanitising our hands once again we leave the classroom and step back along the empty corridor, following the bright yellow direction signs on the floor, plus arrows on the walls.

Suddenly there is a welcoming and familiar sound in the distance... the voice of a teacher taking her class.

“Ola” calls out Spanish teacher Sally Hulston as she spots our approach.

Replying with the same greeting, I point out it will probably be the closest I will get to a holiday abroad this year.

Stepping only to the doorway, the layout of this classroom is exactly the same as the last - but with one enormous difference - the 12 chairs are all occupied by diligent students at their labelled desks.

Looking up they manage a brief and polite smile for us before looking back to the front to study the Spanish on the board at the front of the classroom where Ms Hulston promptly brings  their attention back again.

At last - this is what school is all about. Remember?

Message of thanks from the head

Since the announcement of lockdown, Longdendale has remained open for children of key workers - including the Easter and May holiday periods.

Last month the school was delighted to be able to welcome back Year 10 students and although the school site has inevitably changed with all the safety measures in place, everybody has responded well to the new expectations and the young people especially have been professional and responsible.

There has been good feedback too about the systems and procedures put in place to support the remote learning.

Headteacher Andrea Jones said: “The messages of positivity and support we have received from staff, governors and all of our families during these times has been overwhelming.

“As a whole staff team we are really looking forward to opening our doors again in September for all of our young people and we look forward to welcoming all of our learners back.

“Huge thanks must be given to all of our key workers as it is recognised that all staff have worked tirelessly to ensure continuity of provision in what has been a very challenging and unprecedented period of time.

“Equally families who have been juggling many competing priorities whilst supporting remote learning as well as taking on multiple roles deserve our thanks and huge respect as well.”

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