Sat 23 October 2021

With the Prime Minister announcing the end of Coronavirus restrictions, and school bubbles and isolation being brought to an end, Kimi Chaddah reports on the reality being faced by worried teachers on the frontline

As the caution of ‘data not dates’ gives way to the relaxation of all COVID-19 restrictions on ‘Freedom day’ in England, ministers have been keen to stress the importance of a return to normality.

Using the success of the vaccine roll-out as his justification, the Prime Minister yesterday announced that the current guidelines around the Coronavirus pandemic would come to an end on 19 July, with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson also set to announce the ending of school bubbles and the need for COVID-19 contacts to self-isolate today.  

But the reality in schools tells a different story.

Many schools remain closed. Last week, more than one in 20 students were off school due to COVID-19, with more than 250,000 pupils self-isolating isolating due to potential contact with the Coronavirus in school – a rise of 62% on the previous week. With the emergence of the Delta variant, teachers and headteachers are concerned by its consequences and have been left alone to deal with endless emails, test-and-trace notifications and frustrated parents. 

“We’ve had high numbers of positive tests in the past,” said a teacher at a secondary school in Manchester. “But this time the numbers have been outrageous. On June 25, the head notified us that we had ‘60 live positive PCR tests’ and almost 40 staff absent.”

While not all absences were COVID-19 related, some staff members were hospitalised due to the Coronavirus. Of 15 members in one department, at least four have been experiencing Long COVID symptoms. “It’s had a terrible toll, but it seems as though this is expected to be the new norm,” they told Byline Times

With the onus placed on schools to implement COVID-19 guidance as they see best, the high numbers of students self-isolating is frequently framed through the lens of school ‘autonomy’ – that it is the schools themselves that are unnecessarily sending thousands of students home.

“The hardest thing as a school leader has been the hugely contrasting views on things such as face coverings among the community,” a headteacher of a secondary school in Devon told Byline Times. “As a headteacher, you’re bombarded with some vitriolic and unpleasant communication from whichever side of the debate you’ve inevitably upset – including being threatened with litigation when you’re just trying to do the best for your staff and students.”

This sentiment was echoed by the teacher Byline Times spoke to in Manchester, who said that the Government “is starting to put the narrative of blame on schools”.

“Only last week I had a discussion with a parent whose child repeatedly failed to wear a mask who told me that ‘Boris says it’s not compulsory anymore’,” he added.

At one school in south-west London, one-third of bubbles have closed within the last seven days. “Parents and carers are no longer as supportive of the need for isolation”, another headteacher told Byline Times. “They’re hearing different messages nationally which makes it seem as if we’re acting separately from the overall direction of travel.”

A National Picture

Secondary schools are not alone in experiencing a disruptive third wave of the Coronavirus – nurseries, infant schools and primary schools have been affected too.

The north-east has been hit particularly hard hit. Dubbed the nation’s COVID-19 hotspot, it has six of the top 10 highest rates of infection in England.

“Every school in the area has been affected,” a teacher at a local primary school in Durham City told Byline Times. “We’re in one minute, out the next. I came out of self-isolation for two days before I started another stretch of 10 days due to two pupils testing positive in my reception class. They’re both five years old. It’s spreading like wildfire. The academy my school feeds into is practically shut.” With 33 positive cases in one year group, including 17 teachers, all 430 students within the year group were asked to self-isolate.

A head of year at a secondary school in Durham said: “This term we have been more affected than we have at any previous time in the pandemic. None of our precautions (masks, sanitising, cleaning regime, bubbles, more time outside, windows open etc) have changed, yet we’ve had more cases than previously, more students and staff isolating, and more bubbles closed. We’ve responded quickly to this new wave, but we want to focus on the job of teaching our wonderful young people, rather than worrying about how much time we have to clean desks between lessons.” 

As the Department for Education placed increasing reliance on teacher-assessed grades, in the absence of exams, schools became inundated with assessments last year. There are increasing concerns of another disaster waiting to happen in August.

“All funding has gone to making buildings as COVID-19 secure as possible, but we’ve been provided with no extra ventilation or carbon dioxide monitors,” a teacher at a college in Manchester told Byline Times. “Some subjects have classes of more than 25 pupils who are all unvaccinated. Young people returned from their isolation to my class on Monday. They’ve lost their sense of smell and are constantly tired.

“There’s an enormous amount of pressure on our planning for the current Year 10 going into Year 11. Whilst some of the course content was cut for the current Year 11 students, we’re still in the dark about whether this is happening in the next academic year.”

Another teacher Byline Times spoke to shared the same concerns about uncertainty in the year ahead. “The goal should be fixed in stone from the outset of the academic year,” he said. “The lack of guidance about September means that the summer holidays won’t be a break.  We haven’t had a break since March 2020.”

Scientific Evidence?

As pressure mounts on Gavin Williamson to reconsider the decision to end school bubbles, the lack of scientific precaution is noticeable.

According to Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health sciences at the University of Oxford, “the way to break the link between positive cases and lengthy isolation periods is to spend less time sharing air (shorter lessons, more frequent breaks, more time outdoors) and wear masks whenever indoors together”.

“Children are now the largest unvaccinated group,” said Azeem Majeed, professor of primary care at Imperial College London, “and are subsequently at higher risk of infection. It’s very disappointing that the Government has not invested in high-quality ventilation and air filtration systems in schools to make them safe – this would have cost a small fraction of what has been spent on the testing programme.”

Responding to the Government’s management of this academic year, Geoff Barton, general-secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Throughout the pandemic, school and college leaders have shown an incredible ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances but have not been helped by a bewildering barrage of ever-changing guidance and demands from the Department for Education. Our schools and colleges have shown admirable resilience for the last 16 months but deserve strong and decisive leadership from the Government and a cast-iron resolve to reduce educational disruption as the new academic year starts in September.”


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