The excited heads of Market Harborough’s two secondary schools are gearing up to welcome back students this week after almost 18 months of dramatic Covid disruption.
Both Dan Cleary, the principal of Robert Smyth Academy, and Julie McBrearty, who leads the town’s Welland Park Academy, said they are “overjoyed” as they prepare to kickstart the new academic year.
And they are both hoping that their combined pool of about 2,000 pupils will be able to attend classes in school non stop all year after repeated lockdowns and a string of restrictions stretching back to March 2020.
Taking 10 minutes out from his busy schedule to look ahead, Dan told the Harborough Mail: “Our students are coming back tomorrow (Tuesday) and we cannot wait to see them all again.
“Kids have been popping in and picking up coronavirus test kits to be tested at home.
“And we’ve had 100 members of staff in our main hall for a training day for the first time in ages – and there’s been a real sense of togetherness, a phenomenal buzz.
“We are bringing back all the best things this term – because there’s no way in the world our children are going to miss out,” insisted Dan.
“Our very own fantastic band Soul Patrol will kick back off.
“Sport will spark back up again, debating societies, dance and drama, after-school activities will go again.
“We can’t continue with the rest of society being able to go to the pub, the theatre and football matches and our kids still being restricted.
“I’m just not having that.
“We are going to be opening back up and throwing the lot back open to students.
“We are opening up the whole curriculum once again after such a bizarre 18 months or so.
“I’m issuing a direct clarion call for action.
“We cannot be risk averse any more,” said Dan as he celebrates outstanding A-level and GCSE results at his Burnmill Road school.
“Our kids should feel the wider benefits of reopening up society as well – and they should all be singing, dancing, playing football or rugby or netball against each other.”
Asked if he’d be urging 16 and 17-year-olds to be vaccinated against Covid, Dan replied: “That’s a good question – and a difficult one to answer.
“I’m an educator, a school leader, and I work in a school with brilliant people, not a hospital.
“I think that parents and families are most empowered to make that decision with their children.
“But we will be sharing with students the latest information, advice and evidence from the NHS and medical professionals on being vaccinated.”
And moving on to the fast-moving chaos in Afghanistan as the country is reconquered by the Taliban, Dan said: “It’s a massive global tragedy.
“It’s very sad and depressing and I feel very despondent about what’s happening out there.
“You can’t help but be fearful for the lives of kids in Afghanistan, especially the girls – as well as those of women.
“We can all see right from wrong.
“It’s tragic to think about the kids who won’t now be educated over there.
“Our troops went into Afghanistan back in 2001 on a real mission, they had a huge purpose and they’re proud of what they did,” said Dan.
“People were not being hanged in the streets when our forces were there.
“It’s just very tragic.”
Julie McBrearty, who heads up Welland Park Academy on Welland Park Road, told the Mail that her Year 7 pupils – 11-year-olds – are returning to their classrooms tomorrow (Tuesday).
“We have two more year groups coming back in on Wednesday and all five year groups will be back here by Thursday.
“We were running some sport last term.
“But we are thrilled to be welcoming back sports fixtures, matches and competitions between different schools this new academic year,” said Julie.
“We are still operating very high hygiene standards in our school.
“Masks and face coverings are optional.
“It’s so good to be getting back towards normal but we are still being cautious – the coronavirus is still out there.
“We are lucky in Market Harborough.
“We’ve had a low number of cases here in our schools compared to the city.
“So we owe a big thank you to the kids and their families for following the rules and restrictions.
“Every one of our youngsters will take two lateral flow tests to make sure that they are clear to come back.
“This is our third academic year which has been impacted upon by the Covid pandemic.
“We can only hope and work towards our 2021-22 year being a year in which every pupil will be able to remain in class,” said Julie, who has just under 1,000 students.
“We do have contingency plans if virus cases start to rise again – and the NHS locally have been first class supporting us.
“But we are just overjoyed to see all our pupils coming back, our staff can’t wait.
“And there’s no doubt that our children do appreciate walking into school much more – and are extremely grateful for the chance to get back to normal.
“As for 16 and 17-year-olds getting vaccinated – personally I think it’s a good idea.
“Having the vaccine will help to keep you safer as well as the rest of the school and the community in Market Harborough safer too.
“But I do respect the fact that getting the jab is down to the student and their family to decide.”
Asked for her views on the catastrophic human drama unfolding in Afghanistan 20 years after British troops went in, Julie said: “I think it’s a tragedy.
“We have a duty to champion a proper education for everybody – both boys and girls right around the world.
“Girls and women have a right to be educated.
“Our youngsters have some sort of insight into this situation now because they have been in and out of their own classroms since March 2020,” said Julie.
“But at least they’ve been able to still learn remotely.
“And children in Afghanistan just haven’t got anywhere near the same access to online learning – and that’s very sad.”