“To see all the kids coming back, it was fantastic.”
That was how Kingspark School head teacher Paul Dow felt when the school reopened to all of its 185 pupils after a significant coronavirus outbreak forced its closure just a week into the new term in August.
The outbreak, which eventually affected 23 members of staff, three pupils and 14 community contacts, ignited the debate over how safe it was for schools to fully reopen and soon Kingspark found the eyes of the country upon it.
Now, more than a month since pupils returned full time, we spoke to the staff and families about how the experience was for them.
By his own admission, Paul Dow is new to being a head teacher. And with less than a year on the job, he found himself grappling with an unprecedented challenge.
A cluster of Covid-19 cases linked to Kingspark meant the additional needs school became the first in the country to have to close its doors after pupils returned.
Speaking about that time, Paul said: “We had a steering group looking at where the risks were and what could cause more distress, because we know change can cause a lot of distress for our children.
“The focus very quickly became we are going to have to take a sort of circuit-breaker and get a plan on what needs to change to get back.
“We’ve had to adapt very quickly with the information coming from the governments and public health.”
Ahead of pupils returning in August, the school had sent out an information booklet complete with cartoon characters and illustrations for parents and families to learn about the changes that had been made at the school.
These included reduced pupil numbers in classrooms, enhanced cleaning regimes between classes and outdoor learning.
Nicki Brownlee, who is the principal teacher of the practical and aesthetics department, said: “We put a lot of processes in place so that when the children came back it was a smooth transition.
“Personally for me, I’m a home economics teacher and we can’t do theory all the time. So our classes have smaller numbers, the children are all socially distanced and they don’t come round my table.
We’ve had to adapt very quickly with the information coming from the governments and public health.”
Paul Dow, Kingspark School head teacher
“There is also a camera that projects onto a screen, this means the children can watch me and follow me step by step. The whole area is also cleaned down for the next class coming in.
“The teachers also keep their own bubbles and we’ve got outdoor space for PE, art and music.”
Staff at the school had gone to great lengths to ensure safety, so when the coronavirus outbreak forced it shut just a week after welcoming pupils back it was a huge blow.
Ms Brownlee said: “I felt sorry for our parents really. They had done everything they were asked to do so they must have felt as if they were back to square one.
“I was quite sad because I knew how much work had been put in to keep our young people safe. We did everything we could and it’s really unfortunate.”
The closure also meant that all staff and pupils were told to self isolate for 14 days, and it would be eventually more than four weeks before the school would reopen full time.
Now, with the outbreak fully behind them, Paul is looking to use the lessons learned from that time to continue improving the pupil’s school experience – including developing a partnership with Dundee United.
He said: “It’s been challenging but we’ve had huge support and you build even stronger networks within the school with staff, management teams and parents.
“At Kingspark we are really fortunate we have a lot of outdoor space and it’s been a priority in the last few years to really develop this.
“So we have been focusing on that and we know that the risks of Covid are less outdoors.”
Ms Brownlee added: “There’s more communication with parents now than there ever has been, and all across the school everyone is there to help each other.”
For Susan Clelland, whose daughter Katie is in S4, the intense attention the outbreak received threatened to overshadow the hard work staff had made throughout lockdown.
She said: “We had very good communication with Katie’s teacher, she would email us to see how Katie was coping because she was concerned about the mental wellbeing of her class.
“I thought that was very touching and she went above and beyond her role.
“I suppose the social media aspect of things, the stories on it tend to grow arms and legs and that was a bit disturbing. But we decided to leave it be and go with whatever information was coming from the school.”
The request for all staff and pupils to self-isolate for a fortnight meant that family members had to shield, something which Susan and her family were happy to do.
Susan said: “We’ve been shielding quite a lot through lockdown so the four week school closure wasn’t too much different to what we were used to at that time. It was about keeping everyone safe.”
“I can’t praise them enough”
The closure of Kingspark following the Covid outbreak was the first time it had to shut its doors this year, having remained open throughout the lockdown period operating as a community support centre.
Gillian Coleman, whose 11-year-old son Josh attends the school, was one of those who was able to access its services during this time and described it as a “life-saver”.
She said: “Throughout lockdown we had the support of the hub for a few days a week and I can’t praise them enough.
“We were able to get transport to take Josh to school and pick him up and the communication we got from the school during that time was second-to-none.
“It allowed both me and my husband to be able to work during this period, so that was a life-saver for us.”
The school’s closure and the subsequent isolation period was tough for the Coleman family and like Susan, Gillian was disheartened by the intense coverage.
“It was very hard and it was always negative publicity but we wouldn’t survive without the school,” she explained.
“We can only see how Josh is through his actions and his behaviours because he can’t speak and, yes, we had our anxieties but my son is very happy when he is at school.”
Gillian added: “Working in the school has changed and there is a lot of outdoor activities but his development throughout lockdown has actually been quite amazing and we have seen a lot of positive changes.”