Nevermind the tussle between government and unions, writes the Harris Federation CEO. This is how we’re getting on with the job of preparing for our students to return

In the much-watched clip of BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis blasting the myths of Covid-19, she said: “They tell us coronavirus is a great leveller. It’s not. It’s much, much harder if you’re poor. How do we stop it making social inequality even greater?”

This question, of how we stop disadvantaged children becoming even more disadvantaged, has occupied the minds of most of us in education over the past eight weeks. The Harris Federation was lucky enough to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds in charitable donations at the outset of the crisis, which we’ve used for supermarket vouchers, play equipment, laptops and WiFi access for pupils in need.

Against the noise of the fight between some teaching unions and the government about reopening, it should not be forgotten that the response of teachers across the country to coronavirus has been amazing. Many schools adapted practically overnight to virtual schooling, and stayed open for the children of critical workers and vulnerable children, including over Easter and on Bank Holidays.

But, for all this remarkable professionalism, and for all the social media feeds filled with photographs of virtual learning, we couldn’t agree more with the Children’s Commissioner’s warning that decisions about returning to school cannot wait until a vaccine is available.

Bereavement, financial worries, neglect and domestic violence are just some of the terrible stresses children have suffered in lockdown. Coronavirus may not be resolved for the next year or two, or longer – none of us knows. So, yes, we are apprehensive about reopening, and staff are apprehensive too; but the bottom line is that unless schools can intervene, the already unacceptable disadvantage gap will simply open up even more widely, with ramifications for years to come.

Staff are looking forward to being able to see their pupils again

We welcome the government’s cautious approach to reopening schools. Staff are looking forward to being able to see their pupils again. We are talking to them about any worries and concerns they have and will go as far as we can to minimise the risks involved. As well as installing handwashing sinks outside school we will also be taking temperatures daily using infra-red thermometers held at a distance to ensure no one is in school if they pose any avoidable risk. Our technology departments have made thousands of masks and visors during lockdown, donating most to healthcare providers but keeping enough aside to ensure staff coming into close contact with pupils – for example, our first-aiders – are well protected.

The physical safety of everyone in our schools is the most important consideration in the decisions we are taking, but so is their mental health. The return to a normal routine will be beneficial in terms of the wellbeing of children, as will face-to-face contact with their friends and teachers.

There has been a lot of contact during lockdown between our schools and those children whom we know are vulnerable or have additional needs and we are training all 4,000 staff in the Harris Federation in a trauma-informed approach to mental health. We will be teaching pupils to feel safe and resilient as they come to terms with any possible traumas of their lives in lockdown.

Despite the restrictions in place, we want to ensure that the return to school feels happy for pupils. We have asked parents not to allow their children to spend time worrying about work that has been missed during lockdown, or to worry about it themselves. As a federation, we have a good record of “levelling up” children and are writing a recovery curriculum for primary and secondary that gets pupils up to speed, whatever their starting point when they return to school.

The global evidence is still that coronavirus does not particularly risk the physical health of children, but they have undoubtedly suffered in other ways. Though it is obviously not without challenge,  we are delighted that the phased return to school is starting, and believe this is the vital first step in enabling us to begin making up to children what they have lost, not just in terms of schooling but also their emotional wellbeing and social development.