“To be able to have a chat and when someone’s having a bad day, just to be able to share those emotions.”
That’s what teachers have missed most within the “little family” at Ysgol Cynwyl Elfed where staff have sometimes felt isolated in separate bubbles.
Headteacher Geraldine Jenkins believes Covid measures have taken an emotional toll on teachers over the past year.
One teacher has said not having “face-to-face daily” chats with colleagues who are also friends was “difficult”.
As the school year comes to an end, the Welsh government has said that contact groups will be ditched in September.
The measure has been tough for small, rural schools like the one in Cynwyl Elfed, just north of Carmarthen, which has 77 pupils on its roll.
“When there’s only, perhaps, two in a bubble, they’ve had to be with those children all the time, they don’t have a chance to move away from those children, and to be fair the children don’t have that mix of adults,” said Mrs Jenkins.
There are three bubbles – the youngest children are in one contact group and are separated from the two bubbles in the junior part of the school by the hall in the middle of the building.
Staggered breaks also mean extra supervision duties and a greater workload, with Mrs Jenkins feeling staff have missed out on the social aspect of school life while dealing with the “ups and downs” of the past year.
“We’re a small little family ourselves, we share things that are happening within our families and what’s going on,” she added.
“Working together has been important, and because we can’t share within the bubbles that’s something we’ve missed out on. And I think some of the staff at times have felt quite isolated.”
It has been “a lonely experience” at times, admits Eleri Samson who teaches years three and four.
She said the only time they see the foundation phase staff is when they line children up to go home on the buses at the end of the day.
“We are friends as well as co-workers and not being able to see each other face-to-face daily has been difficult,” she added.
“We make sure that we are there for each other but it’s not the same speaking on Teams.”
She said staff are looking forward to September when “things will be different” and staff and pupils will be able to mix more.
While Education Minister Jeremy Miles has said contact groups will not be needed in September, schools are still awaiting more details on how exactly lessons will look.
In the yard of Ysgol Cynwyl Elfed, cones are used to divide children, with youngsters saying they are looking forward to being able to play with friends in other classes.
“There are some cones [In the yard], and year five and six are one side, and year three and four are the other,” Mair, aged 10, said. “And we can’t cross over to see each other and play with each other.
“I miss the fact that you can’t cross over and play with your friends from different bubbles.”
Gwenno, also 10 and in year five, said it has been tough because her sister and cousin have started school and she has not been able to see them or check they are okay.
“I don’t think it’s fair that our parents and grandparents and family members can’t come and watch us do sports because thousands of people are allowed to watch rugby and football,” she said.
What is the latest situation in schools?
Though term does not finish for some schools until next week, many pupils will be finishing for the summer holidays on Friday.
However, thousands will miss their last days in class because they are having to self-isolate.
Other pupils are also staying away because of concern they could be told to self-isolate if there is a positive case in their contact group and put family holidays in jeopardy next week.
The latest Welsh government figures showed that an average of 8% of all pupils were absent due to a Covid-19-related reason between 5 and 9 July.
That is 23,810 pupils, and the disruption has continued up to the end of term.
Other teachers and pupils in schools in different communities told BBC Wales of the challenges they had faced ahead of the summer holidays.
Katie, aged 10, from Newport, said the last year had been a “bit of a rollercoaster”, and while she had enjoyed learning from home, it had been challenging.
“It’s been a whale of a time, but it’s also been difficult as well… because of all the cases and worrying about family members,” she said.
Emma Northcote, a mother of two from Kidwelly, Carmarthenshire, said working from home had been challenging but she hoped they would remember the good times they spent together, making cakes.
“We don’t want them to remember the time as us being quite stressed and busy… and telling them to do their maths and stuff, so we did what we could,” she said.
Tim Newbould, headteacher at Penycae Community Primary School in Wrexham, is self-isolating along with two other teachers and 25 pupils after a positive case.
He described it as “a very complicated year”, and while staff learnt new skills through online learning, he said children missed out on the social aspect, with it “a nightmare” for parents.
“I was covering for year four last Thursday and a case was confirmed on Saturday, so I have to self-isolate until Sunday,” he said.
“I was a bit lucky as those who were in on Friday, have to isolate until Monday. At least I’m back for the last two days of term.”
There are two other staff members self-isolating, and while he said it has been frustrating not being in school, Mr Newbould expressed sympathy for parents who were not able to attend sports day and any year six pupils not able to attend leavers proms and services.
‘More normal in September’
Bronwen Hughes, headteacher of Ysgol Maes Garmon in Mold, Flintshire, told BBC Radio Wales, when the bell rings starting the school holidays it would be a “lovely sound” after a challenging year for staff and pupils.
“We have tried to tell our learners they have lived through a period of history, and they need to reflect on that, and what they have learned from it as well,” she said.
Ms Hughes said while it was looking like school could be “more normal” after the summer break, she was mindful that guidance could change over the coming months, depending on case rates.
“It’s all about being flexible and adapting to the situation you find yourself in,” she added.