'It will be strange to go back' - Suffolk student on return to classrooms

Farlingaye High School student Annabelle Whittle, who is studying for her GCSEs

Farlingaye High School student Annabelle Whittle, who is studying for her GCSEs - Credit: Annabelle Whittle

Farlingaye High School student Annabelle Whittle has penned her thoughts ahead of her return to the classroom on Monday after weeks of online learning.

I feel like March 8 will be my first day of school again: neat uniform, crying parents, lining up outside the classroom and nobody actually knowing what the rules are. I have been at my school for over four years, but with new one-way systems, masks, bubbles, and now, online learning, it almost feels unrecognisable. This place of safety has turned into one I fear. We are still children, yet now we are also guinea pigs for the whole population.

I have many worries about returning to school. Some of the rules we must now follow, such as social distancing, have proved impossible in small classrooms packed with 30 students. The government may wish to believe that we do not talk and get up in our classes, but as children we always will, and in these times that could be dangerous (even more than swinging on our chairs).

Masks will be advised in lessons until Easter. It is a step in the right direction if we cannot maintain distance, but unfortunately, I can see this only as another weapon of mass distraction, as it has become in the corridors. Frequent testing is beginning, also a good step, but I feel that uptake will fizzle out after a few weeks as it becomes another joke or arduous task that students are underprepared for, and frankly scared by. This is not to say that we are lawless apes with no discipline: we are GCSE students, but classrooms will never be the ideal place to have stringent rules on talking and distance, and children should not have to lead the way out of lockdown; we clearly do not have the best idea of safety (see: swinging on chairs).

Speaking of GCSEs, we have no true idea beyond vague catchphrases like ‘teacher assessed’ and ‘optional mini exams’ to tell us how our futures will be formed. Every lesson feels like a secret scramble to set up a complex television; one that will spit out our grades. We grapple frantically with the mess of wires hiding behind the sleek (albeit blank) screen, but the instruction manual has nothing concrete to tell us and, in the meantime, we must go on working as if we have no television to worry about at all. It feels like it is our, as students’, responsibility to fix this, to make our own system. The spectre of last year’s fiasco looms behind, even if we are awarded fair grades, can the machine snatch them from us for the sake of quotas? Who will be trusted to evaluate the worth of 4 years of hard work? The concrete nature of exams was terrifying, but secure; this unknown is 1000 times worse.

All this said, there are obvious positives to going back. I have missed my friends (and teachers) intensely over the last year and Instagram chat, with the occasional fleeting glimpse of a teachers face onscreen is no substitute. We are not made for isolation, and children learn by social connection. I want to wave at my friends in the corridors again, to stick my actual hand up in class instead of an emoji (although I will miss chat boxes, where contributing causes far less anxiety), and to not have to stare at a screen for 12 hours a day (I mentioned Instagram?). Heaven forbid, I even want to swing on a chair. However, these seem pale and feeble in comparison to the virus ravaging the UK currently, which we are being thrown straight back into.

It will be strange to go back to a place that I know so well and feel like it is unsafe for us to be there, but for most of us school is a place where we feel we have friends, where we can escape our parents and be something separate from home. At the end of the day, we are kids, we just want to learn and be safe, we do not deserve to be political and social cannon fodder. In a world where death feels like it lingers on every door handle, I cannot help but think that maybe school is more dangerous than the education secretary would like to believe.