Back to school: This time it’s different (not really)

A girl and a boy standing in school uniform

Back to School 2020. In this of all years, it should have felt distinctly different to previous years. But it wasn’t really that different, at least not for me. And do you know what? That’s okay.

For a while, I started to think it might never happen. But it did. Toby and Kara are back to school.

With the exception of two two-day stints at the end of what would have been summer term – which served little real purpose other than preventing them from forgetting what the inside of a classroom looks like – this is the first time they have been back at school since Friday 20th March: 5½ months ago.

Everything was different in lockdown …

A lot has happened since then. Actually, that’s not strictly true. An awful lot of not very much occurred for several weeks until lockdown restrictions eased. There were some attempts at home-schooling. In truth, much of it was self-learning rather than parent-led, as Heather and I wrestled with translating our normal work-days into a domestic environment.

We went for a lot of family walks. We participated in and created weekly quizzes with friends. There may even have been home karaoke sessions (including one unfortunate evening when we left the living room window open. Oops.)

We sneakily booked a few days in Dorset the week before schools officially broke up. Our long-planned trip to France fell through at the last minute. We did a road trip around the UK instead.

In so many ways, things were different in lockdown. We thought everything would be different about the start of a new school year too. After all, 2020 has been the year of the pandemic. Instead of six weeks off school, it has been nearly six months. Schools are returning in full now but with social distancing measures in place. No one really knows whether they will make it through to Christmas without any further disruption. We will just have to wait and see. Prepare for the worst; hope for the best.

… But Back to School felt reassuringly familiar

We thought everything would be different this week.

Instead, it was mostly the same. Getting school uniforms, PE kits, lunchboxes and book bags together again. Trying to revert to a normal bedtime. A lot of excitement (Toby and Kara); a little anxiety (us).

Morning came and, as usual, we lined them up in front of the house for the traditional first-day-of-school photo. The photo is much the same from year to year – it’s just that they’re a bit taller. And, of course, where it used to be a three-child shot, it’s now just two. (Isaac is starting Year 8 and doesn’t go back until next week.)

Over the past couple of days, my social media feeds have been full of identikit images. Photos taken by a thousand parents of a thousand kids in slightly-too-large uniforms standing in front of a thousand front doors. It’s enough to make a non-parent’s eyes roll, but this year more than any other the sheer familiarity of the images has been reassuring. We’re all in the same boat, and not that much has changed after all.

Next year will be different – for us, at least – because Toby will be making the step up to secondary school and there is a fair chance that between them our three will be wearing three different uniforms belonging to three different schools. But this year? It was basically 2019 with bigger clothes and face masks.

Not so different, after all.

Heading back towards normality?

Of course, in other ways, things are actually very different. We don’t really know how long the normality of school runs and term dates will hold. Heather and I will most likely both continue to work from home until well into 2021. (By the time I next set foot inside my office, I may need the help of a map to find my way in to work.)

Back in March, I don’t think any of us realised how disruptive and long-term the changes we were facing would turn out to be. People spoke confidently about schools returning after the Easter holidays, or certainly by the May half-term. How wrong we were. How different these last few months have been for so many of us.

And yet, six months later, Back to School 2020 really did feel awfully similar to Back to School 2019, and 2018, and …

Maybe that’s for the better. There are many things that have changed since March that I would like to stay changed. But equally, a return to the humdrum routine of school runs, parents’ evenings and Christmas plays and concerts is something I’d welcome. Everyone needs some constants in life. Constants are familiar and comforting. Constants imply normality.

Maybe Back to School is that first, much-needed proper step on the road back to normal.


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