Many teachers will have found themselves limping and staggering towards the October break after a first term like no other. It has been an exhausting start to the academic year.

The expectation among some as schools reopened their doors and rang the bell to signal the start of the 2020-21 school session might have been that teachers would resume the usual business of school life and set in motion the myriad of the usual activities of a new school year.

But this was simply not possible. Nor is it possible for Term 2 as we return from the October break.

Coronavirus has not gone away as an immediate threat to the health of staff and pupils, some of whom are particularly vulnerable; and the wellbeing impact of the first seven months of life in COVID times, both on pupils and staff, continues to be felt with varying degrees of acuteness. 

All children, young people and adults – parents, teachers and support staff – will have been affected in some way by the pandemic. Confinement, restricted social interaction, illness, bereavement, unemployment, poverty and food insecurity, financial worries, media reporting of the virus, will all have made their mark to varying degrees on individuals, families and communities. Whilst some may have managed some recovery, others will still be suffering the harsh consequences of Coronavirus on their physical and emotional health, family life, finances and employment status.

At no point since schools reopened have we felt that we’re comfortably within the territory of recovery.

The EIS has been clear that school closure and lockdown have wreaked the most damage upon children and families who are most disadvantaged by societal inequality and has pushed for equity audits and appropriate prioritisation of resources taking account of such disproportionality. We’ve also highlighted to the Scottish Government and pressed them to act upon the fact that COVID-19 has had a disproportionately high impact on people from BAME backgrounds, both in terms of likelihood of infection and death rates, meaning that children, young people and staff from BAME backgrounds and their families may have been affected by COVID-related illness and bereavement and/or may be experiencing higher levels of anxiety related to infection risk.

At no point since schools reopened have we felt that we’re comfortably within the territory of recovery. What might have looked like quite a smooth and straightforward road to recovery when it was being mapped out by the Scottish Government during the summer period is now looking more like a long and winding and quite bumpy road, that’s likely to have many twists and turns on the way. At the time of writing, for example, infection rates are rising to levels not seen since the Spring.

Needless to say, the situation that we find ourselves in with regards to the pandemic has posed significant challenges, on the health and safety front, or course, and in relation to how we approach the curriculum and pedagogy. The absolute need to maintain COVID-security and adherence to the principles of Education Recovery as set out by the Scottish Government in its CfE for the Recovery Phase document has been a tricky tightrope to walk.

Contemporary pedagogy is underpinned by the principle of education as a social and highly participatory experience, in which learners work closely with other learners and their teachers, collaborating on activities, sharing thinking, building relationships, all usually within the same physical space. This is what children and young people and teachers were without during the period of school closure from March until June when remote learning and teaching, albeit the product of accelerated innovation by teachers, were generally experienced as second best by teachers and pupils alike. The majority missed school.       

But while pupils and students, teachers and other school staff are now back within school buildings and sharing the same physical rather than digital spaces once more, much about what that looks and feels like has had to be different. Teachers have had to adapt their approaches to be COVID-secure and to ensure the right emphasis on recovery within the curriculum. School Improvement Planning is for the time being School Recovery Planning (or it should be). Business as usual, it is most certainly not.

Every single aspect of classroom practice and of wider school routines and processes have had to be considered in terms of COVID-risk and mitigations put in place accordingly. In many regards teachers are having to act counter-intuitively to their core instincts in terms of how they would normally provide nurture and support to young people, and of how they would design learning activities to encourage collaboration among pupils and close interaction with them as their teacher. Even the simple act of handling jotters must be COVID-secure.

Anticipating this and responding to members’ concerns ahead of school reopening, the EIS Education Department has produced a suite of guidance for members on COVID-secure pedagogy and the Recovery Curriculum for each sector. Such is the transformative impact of Coronavirus that the EIS Guidance on Curriculum and Pedagogy is widely expansive. As well as outlining the main elements of the Recovery Curriculum, it covers an array of aspects of pedagogy and practice that are impacted by COVID-19- from the layout and seating within classrooms to the use of equipment and resources, including technology; from interacting with and supporting pupils, including those with additional need to giving instructions, explanations and demonstrations; from safe formative assessment practice to the use of voice and the pace of lessons; and from promoting positive relationships and managing discipline to school trips and extracurricular activities.

The guidance also makes clear that the wellbeing of pupils, teachers and families should be at the forefront of all school-based decision-making during this initial period of education recovery.

And the EIS is not alone in stating this. The Scottish Government guidance on education recovery advises that schools should set out: “…a clear statement of intent to prioritise the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of children and young people, practitioners and families. Recognition that good health and wellbeing is fundamental to ensuring that children and young people can engage effectively in their learning.”

The EIS would expect that all communication to staff and parents, either by the school or the local authority, should have this emphasis. Streamlining of priorities is encouraged by the EIS and by the Scottish Government, while children, young people, teachers and support staff are reconnecting with school life. Learning across literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing have been identified as the initial priority. Time and space are to be given over to opportunities for communication and dialogue with children, young people and their families, with a view to continuing to build relationships and resilience. The benefits of play and outdoor learning should be factored into learning plans – including opportunities for learners to be physically active, to enjoy and learn about their natural environment, and to relax.

Much that we would normally do must give way to these priorities which should be reflected in all school-based planning and decision-making, with teachers fully involved. The Empowered Schools agenda, with collegiate working at its heart, remains live even in these COVID times.

And it’s clear that teachers, as they always do, are going the extra mile to overcome the pedagogical challenges that teaching alongside Coronavirus brings. Many, as the EIS guidance recommends, have arrived at solutions by involving the children and young people in their classes in finding them.

And it’s clear that teachers, as they always do, are going the extra mile to overcome the pedagogical challenges that teaching alongside Coronavirus brings.

In schools where the requisite technology is available, teachers and pupils have found innovative alternatives to quarantining jotters before feedback can be given. Instead of handing in their jotters, young people are taking photos of their work and sharing these virtually with their teachers so that feedback can be given either verbally from a distance or by digital means.

This kind of approach works two-way, with many teachers photographing notes and examples that they’ve written onto whiteboards and sharing these within platforms such as Google Classroom.

Technology is also enabling collaboration among pupils – various digital platforms enabling the co-creation of interactive documents on the classroom smartboard. One Primary school has succeeded in setting up a buddy system for their P1s using Microsoft Teams, the P7s now reading regularly to their infant buddies from different rooms within the school building, across a digital platform. The P1s are delighted to be hooked up with their upper school buddies.

Teachers have also reported that the challenging circumstances of the start of the school session have led to closer collaboration with their colleagues, including senior colleagues, as they endeavour to problem-solve their way around the many potential obstacles that COVID-19 throws in the way. Teachers who took part in a recent webinar on COVID-secure Pedagogy and Recovery remarked on the strong sense of collegiality and camaraderie in their schools at the moment and the determination that teachers working together will overcome the many pedagogical challenges that there are.

Yet challenges remain. The same cohort of teachers identified several areas in which hurdles have still to be overcome or removed entirely.

Whilst opportunities for collegiality have grown in some school settings, in others, teachers are struggling with feelings of isolation – of being disconnected from their colleagues in the absence of face to face meetings and the restrictions upon using staff social spaces. The necessity of outdoor learning in PE and the encouragement of it across all curricular areas has posed difficulties where young people don’t have suitable outdoor clothing, with concerns growing about this as we approach the winter months. The public health restrictions upon learning and teaching in subjects that feature performance – Dance, Drama and Music- mean that young people whose particular interests and achievements are in these areas, have less opportunity to experience the enjoyment, pleasure and confidence that can be derived from the expressive arts and that comes from being good at something. Teachers are finding it harder to support and nurture these young people in the context of recovery while the performance elements of these subjects are missing in whole or in part.

And for Secondary colleagues, the lack of clarity about the course content and assessment arrangements for this year’s National Qualifications is a source of huge frustration, anxiety and stress as teachers try to guess and second guess what might be in and what will be out, and whether they will be preparing candidates for a final exam or not. The uncertainty pre-summer, throughout the summer holidays and for the whole of the first term has been wearing for teachers delivering these courses.

Constantly changing and adapting aspects of practice takes a great amount of time and energy.

Draining of the energy of many teachers – Primary and Secondary- has been that every aspect of their professional lives has had to be rethought and often rethought again. Constantly changing and adapting aspects of practice takes a great amount of time and energy. Learning to use new technology can often demand significant commitment of time and inner resource, especially where people are coming to it fresh. Meanwhile, the impact of COVID-19 on children and their families is significant and as teachers seek to triage, many are doubtlessly carrying their own wounds.

It is a phenomenal amount that’s being asked of teachers at the moment. If our wish is that teachers can stay the course on this long and winding, bumpy road to education recovery, then something has to give.

The EIS says that must be class sizes.

The current situation which allows for up to 33 young people to be taught in small, often poorly ventilated rooms, with no physical distancing among them, by at least one adult with restricted space to enable physical distancing from pupils let alone from other adults, seriously compromises the ability of schools and teachers to ensure that classrooms and schools are COVID-secure. Such arrangements pose risk to everyone’s physical health.

Equally, they undermine the ability of teachers to support individual young people in relation to their wellbeing and their learning in the context of education recovery. Teaching classes of up to 33 young people, a large percentage of whom are likely to have additional support needs, a large percentage of whom are likely to be living in poverty, is more than challenging at the best of times. As schools do this at the same as grappling with the impact of COVID-19, the jaws of defeat widen.

And all of this is damaging to the morale and the wellbeing of teachers. Scotland’s teachers have been struggling with excessive workload and the associated stress impacts for some time now. COVID-19 has intensified the burden and could, if we’re not careful, be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when we’ve only just started on this road to recovery.

Reducing class sizes would equip us properly for what’s going to be a long and arduous journey. More teachers to teach and more space in which to do this are the essential remedies for our education system as it continues to assist in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. EIS Council has agreed this as a key campaigning objective for the weeks and months ahead.

In the meantime, as the EIS national body targets national and local government within its campaign for smaller classes, we would urge members in schools to maintain and build collegiate approaches, ensuring that teacher voice is present and heard in all key decision making. Keeping close contact with one another as union members both at branch and local association level as many are doing now, will be a huge support. The road to recovery will be better travelled together.

If you have stories or good practice examples of COVID-secure pedagogy to share, we’d love to hear them. Please send to lmeechan@eis.org.uk