Thursday marked the start of the autumn term for many, with the lifting of school restrictions around face coverings, classroom bubbles and lateral flow testing.
Minister for school standards, Nick Gibb MP, visited Gatcombe Park Primary School in Hilsea, Portsmouth, to see how pupils and staff were faring on the first day back.
He said: ‘It was wonderful, you could tell how excited the children were to be back by their energy in the playground and in the classroom.
‘That’s what we want across Hampshire and the rest of the country – to have schools back to normality while maintaining key safety aspects like hygiene, ventilation and clean surfaces.
‘I wanted to visit a primary school today because they’re not staggering their starts, and unlike many others aren’t having an inset day. It looks like any other day – they’ve done extremely well.’
Schools across the county are pushing ahead with different Covid policies, though all are in line with government guidance.
While some have relaxed restrictions, other schools have kept them in place, with headteachers saying they will err on the side of caution.
But Mr Gibb insisted that the government has made the right call.
‘I think we have got the balance right,’ he said.
‘The vaccination programme has been hugely successful and that does enable us to lift some of the restrictions.
‘Bubbles and face coverings do have an impact on education, so it’s about balancing the effect it has on education with keeping schools safe.’
With children and teachers back in classrooms, there are concerns that despite adults being vaccinated, there could still be a Covid-19 outbreak among the pupils.
But Mr Gibb, MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, says there are contingency plans in place.
‘We have a framework in place so schools know what to do,’ he said.
‘In the south there has already been a high infection rate so there’s an enhanced support for schools in those areas. Teachers are able to reintroduce face coverings in communal areas of secondary schools.
‘We want to keep schools open. We have always said that education is a top priority for the government.’
For students, the return to normality is a welcome one, with pupils happy to see friends and look forward to upcoming school events.
Anya Powell, a Year 6 pupil at Gatcombe Primary School, said: 'I was excited to come back and be in Year 6 even though I had been a little bit worried.
‘I was really happy to see my best friend again who I haven't seen for a really long time.'
Ernest Szypa, also from Year 6, added: 'It's really good that school has gone back to normal again and we can eat together in the hall at lunchtimes.
‘I am excited about our upcoming camping trip in the New Forest which will be happening soon.’
Headteacher at Gatcombe Park Primary School, Ian Baker, said it was ‘exciting’ to see things returning to normal.
‘It’s honestly amazing to have all the children back,’ he said.
‘Today has felt like a proper school day again, and walking around the classrooms and playground everybody seems so excited to be back with their friends.
‘For us it’s not just the learning side of things that’s important, but also the social side – things like having school lunches together mean so much more than people might realise.
‘With no staggered entrance times, everyone came in all at once today and I have to say our parents were absolutely brilliant, getting all the children into school on time.’
Mr Baker added that the school ‘will keep an eye’ on how the Covid-19 situation evolves during the school term, and will adjust school policies if necessary.
At The Cowplain School in Waterlooville, Year 7 students were also welcomed through the doors for the very first time today.
Headteacher Ian Gates said he couldn’t have been happier with how the day went.
He said: ‘Our Year 7s came in and spent all day with us, after being tested.
‘It was a very positive day for staff and students alike – the new pupils had a really good day making lots of new friends.
‘You simply can’t compare a day like this, their first day at secondary school, with having everyone sat behind computers instead. The atmosphere in the classrooms was simply brilliant.’
For parents, seeing their children heading back to school put smiles on their faces.
Hayley Savage, 25 from Waterlooville, waved off her son Vinnie at Hart Plain Infant School.
She said: ‘This morning he got up really early because he was so excited. He practically ran into school to see his friends again.
‘He worked really hard from home but remote learning certainly has its challenges.
‘You can’t replace actually being in school, learning face-to-face again.’