FOR teachers expecting to return to school next week, there will be doubtless be butterflies. The Sunday evening apprehension so many of them admit to in ordinary term-time will be cranked up a gear. Coming as I do from a family of educationists, on my own side and my husband’s, I have known several who, while they love their work, always get the late weekend blues. Perhaps it’s an echo of what children feel as Monday approaches, signalling the end of leisure and liberty. More likely it’s a form of actors’ nerves, shortly before going onstage.

But, as teachers prepare to step through the doors for the first time in 12 weeks, any frisson will come from the very practical and reasonable fear of how to do their job to a high standard while keeping students, and themselves, safe. The first day of term is far off yet – Tuesday, August 11 – but with some already claiming to be “exhausted” at the very prospect, they clearly anticipate a logistical mountain ahead.

As in any line of work, there are the dedicated, who work long and often hidden hours, and those who drag their feet. Teaching unions have helped create an image of a recalcitrant profession, putting up as many obstacles and objections as possible to business resuming. Yet I suspect the majority of mentors are eager to get back to direct contact with their students, and move beyond the unsatisfactory interim measures currently in place to prevent the educational battery going completely flat.

That the call has gone out to retired and former teachers to return in August is a symptom of embattled times. It may not be in quite the same league as military conscription, but it certainly falls under the category of emergency measures. Around 15,000 of those registered with the General Teaching Council Scotland are no longer employed by the state. Some will be working elsewhere, including abroad, and more than a few will have passed through the school gates for the last time with a sigh of relief, thankful never to cross its threshold again. Among those willing to sign up, some will have personal or family health issues to consider.

Nevertheless a substantial number of eligibles remain who could enlist. I wouldn’t be surprised if many leap at the chance. Tapping into the Blitz spirit shown by retired medics who came to the NHS’s aid at the start of the pandemic – some paying for their commitment with their lives – the authorities are asking these professionals to put themselves at risk in order to help schools weather this crisis.

Once a teacher, always a teacher, in my experience, having been on the receiving end of impromptu seminars over breakfast, or during the supermarket run. Among those for whom standing in front of a board has been as much a vocation as a way of paying the bills, there will be no hesitation in stepping forward, regardless of what’s at stake. Indeed, the time has come when the mantle of heroism must be stretched to cover the teaching profession. From August, it will be on the new front line. That can’t be a comfortable thought, but at some point, if children’s learning is not to fall into the abyss, it will become an unavoidable responsibility.

The higher the number who answer the call to return to arms, the safer it will be for everyone. Among suggestions for safe ways to hold lessons are small groups, taken in libraries, church halls, or other suitable civic spaces. That prospect, to my mind, is greatly preferable to the picture of kids funnelled through polytunnels in the corridor, an idea that, unless they want youngsters to self-identify as tomatoes, should quickly be quashed.

Yet it is possible that elements of the Covid classroom could in time be proved more effective, and beneficial, than traditional methods. For younger primary pupils, for whom avoiding contact with others will be most problematic, the “bubbles” in which they will gather could provide an unexpected level of individual attention, and a better environment in which to thrive. This might also be a natural point to start considering the extent to which daily attendance is essential for those in primary one and two. After having them at home for several months, parents will now realise that there is a lot they can do themselves to stimulate and creatively educate this age group. Given that most European children don’t start school until they are six, and some think this should be extended to seven, that is surely worth discussing.

Further up the ladder, the demands of social distancing will mean class sizes so bijou they’ll be more like tutorials. Without the issues of crowd control that can make teaching tortuous, the atmosphere might suddenly be more relaxed, and students more responsive. It’ll be interesting to see the outcome. If more focussed tutoring promotes better interaction and learning, perhaps it could become an integral part of the curriculum, rather than a short-term solution.

Meanwhile, the idea of the hybrid or blended model of instruction has the potential to reshape education long after the pandemic has passed. When classes resume in August, and students begin to pass like ships in the night, the physical classroom can be continued online. And what’s to stop holding lessons in the evening, when teenagers are more alert? With a system of rotation, it might be possible to offer more face-to-face sessions by splitting the school day, with one set in situ from morning to lunch, another in the afternoon, and the last taking the back shift. Loss of direct contact can be made up with timetabled virtual catch-ups, and home assignments supported by online material and advice.

Since almost every sphere of life is now partially conducted online, there’s no reason why schooling shouldn’t follow. Limiting class time could also have unexpected benefits, allowing students a breather from constant confinement and scrutiny, not to mention the distracting presence of their peers. For some, this will be a bonus, for others not. In the same way that coronavirus will be with us for a long time yet, schools will soon be rehearsing fresh ways of learning that might endure into the future. You could consider it an extraordinary, unprecedented experiment – their own version of test and protect.

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