At the gates of Oldham's largest secondary school, life is only superficially normal. The city center, a short walk away, is full of lunchtime shoppers and pubs full of drinkers.
But the coronavirus is lurking and the city of Greater Manchester has had the highest infection rate in England for three weeks, according to NHS data. Although the number of cases has decreased, the 236,000 residents still face restrictions on their daily lives.
Against this uncertain backdrop, 43,000 students will return to Oldham's classroom this week. There is nervous excitement in the air at Blue Coat School on the outskirts of the city center. "We can't wait to get the kids back - the staff absolutely love it," said Headmaster Rob Higgins. "Some employees were nervous and afraid, as if there would be (with) some children."
Hand sanitizer bottles are at the entrance to Blue Coat School in Oldham. Photo: Christopher Thomond / The Guardian
For a school that was already bursting at the seams with 1,750 students and 150 employees, making Blue Coat Covid-safe was a daunting logistical exercise, costing tens of thousands of pounds - more than £ 10,000 for hand sanitizer alone.
Singing is prohibited and the trumpets and trombones of the award-winning Blue Coat marching band have stopped. Her practice room became a first aid room for suspected Covid-19 cases. The library may be almost completely silent for the first time and instead run as a click-and-collect service.
Higgins insists that "even the grumpiest teenager" looks forward to being back in class. Employees have completed “trauma-informed training” to identify children who are having difficulty coping with the new regime. Although the most vulnerable students have been supported since March, the mental stress of the past five months has affected students in different ways. "You can't cuddle them, but you can give them the support they need," said Higgins.
Each year group will have its own building and social area, so students in separate cohorts should never meet. Red spray paint marks a no man's land that divides the annual group's territory. There are no ball games on the playground so that the ball does not go over the wall and be returned by a potentially infected passerby.
Physical distance markings on the corridor show the Covid-19-compliant measures taken. Photo: Christopher Thomond / The Guardian
In such a large school in the center of one of the hardest hit areas of England, Blue Coat School almost certainly has at least one coronavirus case. About half of the city's 122 cases in the week ending August 25 were in a few neighborhoods outside school gates. In the same week, Liverpool had half as many cases despite being twice the size of Oldham.
When the first coronavirus case is confirmed, a giant detective operation will kick in. The exact movements of the students are tracked over 48 hours: where they sat, who they hung out with, where they had lunch, how they got to school. Given the size of his average class - 26 students, up to 34 in some top groups, compared to 22 in England - there may have been more than a dozen students in close contact with this student. Everyone is advised to get tested and self-isolate. Across the UK, learning disorder is inevitable for many quarantined students.
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One challenge for the school, Hollis said, would be to reassure parents when the first cases surfaced. “One of the difficulties is that schools are a rumor mill. A confirmed case or someone with symptoms is not an outbreak, ”she said. "You have to manage the children, you have to manage the staff, but you also have to manage the perception of the community. You have to be absolutely transparent, but you also have to make it clear to people that we can do it and not take any chances ... but we won't panic either. "
Red markings separate different year groups in the schoolyard. Photo: Christopher Thomond / The Guardian
Although Blue Coat is the city's largest secondary school with the highest infection rate in England, it received no more central government support than any other in the country. 10 test kits have been promised to arrive this week, but they could be gone within days if a student falls ill with suspicious Covid. "I think there is no doubt that Oldham needs more support as an agency," said Hollis.
In Oldham town center, 11-year-old Abby Mills is looking forward to her first day of secondary school on Thursday. She will go back to school with new skills after decorating her bedroom and making her first cup of tea, but she sorely missed her friends. "It was boring at home," she said. Her father, James Mills, 37, said he was delighted that schools were fully reopening, "more for children's mental health than for learning".
"She can interact with us, but it's not the same as interacting with people her own age and we look forward to that," he said.
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