Back to School But Will Johnson’s Omicron Gamble Pay Off?
Two weeks into the new school term, as Omicron cases continue to spread, what is the impact of the Government’s Coronavirus policy on teachers, pupils and school staff?
One in 12 teachers and school leaders were absent in the first week of the spring term, according to the Department for Education, with 4.9% of teachers and school leaders absent because of COVID-19. This represented an increase from 3% on 16 December, when schools broke up for the Christmas break.
At the same time, children in England’s secondary schools returned to new rules: face coverings in lessons and lateral flow tests.
But anecdotal evidence suggests that the new rules aren’t working. According to the NASUWT teachers’ union’s Damien McNulty, in one Lancashire school only 67 children out of 1,300 were prepared to wear masks – while another school in Manchester offered a tone of resignation, saying “there was no point” in offering lateral flow tests when pupils returned.
Then there’s the general uncertainty that persists when it comes to education and Coronavirus.
A teacher at a school in Warrington shared how “our biggest concern at the moment is the lack of certainty about exams”. Although the Department for Education has promised to publish advice on how to approach exams in this third year of disrupted education, that won’t happen until February: three months before the exams are due to be sat – in February. “Staff and students are in a constant state of uncertainty regarding the rules,” said a teacher in Manchester.
According to a snap poll by school leaders’ union NAHT, 37% of schools have been unable to source the cover they need as staff absences related to COVID-19 continue.
“Every day, there are at least 20% of teaching staff off, having had a positive COVID-19 test,” a teacher at a sixth form college in Manchester told Byline Times. “This creates a greater workload for middle managers constantly having to find work and cover staff.”
For students completing some ‘A’ level and BTEC subjects, the situation is even more acute. “’A’ level and BTEC specialist supply teachers in subjects like ‘A’ Level Science, Computing and Maths cannot be found,” they added.
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The Government is pursuing measures that aim to stop the spread of the Coronavirus without adversely impacted children’s education – including through vaccination.
In September, as autumn term started, it was announced young people aged 12 to 15 in England would be offered one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, in line with the recommendation of the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). But concerns were raised that this was too little, too late. Similarly, interventions on air filters were only announced days before the spring term began.
Data from the Office for National Statistics suggests that rates of Long COVID are rising fastest in teaching and education staff – presenting possible long-term impact on the workforce.
Education staff now have the second highest incidence of Long COVID, above healthcare worker. The number of teachers and other education staff self-reporting long COVID symptoms is the largest increase among professional groups.
“Long COVID is a real disease with profound impacts on people’s functional ability – their ability to do their jobs and fulfil their social role,” said Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health sciences at the University of Oxford.
The condition’s symptoms include trouble with lungs, or breathing and tiredness which can leave a person “unable to work more than a couple of hours before needing to lie down”. Then there is brain fog. “All of these deficits will interfere with teachers’ ability to do their jobs,” said Greenhalgh.
To try and manage staff shortages, the Government has encouraged retired teachers to volunteer to return to the workforce. This policy, Greenhalgh explained to Byline Times is “neither advisable nor sustainable”, given older people are more vulnerable to COVID-19.
“We’re all used to being thrown to the wolves as a profession”, said one teacher at a primary school in Durham. “But this doesn’t make us any less fearful of getting COVID-19 and taking it home. Some parents are refusing to wear masks when they drop off or pick up – but they simply want us to stay open.”
Air Filters and Future Measures
Earlier this month, the Department for Education announced that it would provide 7,000 air cleaning units for early years settings, schools and colleges in order to improve ventilation in teaching spaces.
But, with teaching unions decrying the move as ‘nowhere near enough’ to cover 300,000 classrooms, a puzzling picture of their accessibility is emerging, with schools reportedly having to fundraise to cover the costs.
At a sixth form college in Manchester with more than 2000 students on roll, students have been told to take lateral flow tests and wear a face covering at all times. But according to one member of staff, “none of our classrooms have had any carbon dioxide monitors and there are no air purifiers.”
Azeem Majeed, professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College London believes “we need a more systematic approach to improving air quality in schools.”
“There should be access to a wider range of equipment,” Majeed told Byline Times. “The current range approved by the Government is very limited.”
“The immediate problem facing schools and colleges is the high incidence of COVID-19 infections in the general population and the potential of this to lead to very high rates of staff absence,” says Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. “Without sufficient numbers of staff, schools and colleges will have to take difficult decisions which may include, as a last resort, sending home classes or year groups to learn remotely for short periods of time.
“The wider issue is that the government guidance on ventilation still relies largely on opening external windows and doors in cold weather,” said Barton.
This was echoed by the teacher Byline Times spoke to in Durham: “The monitors show our classroom is poorly ventilated, but then the children complain because they are so cold. Bearing in mind temperatures last week were zero or below, it’s just not sustainable.”
Ultimately, schools “need to see a commitment from the government to invest in improved ventilation through funding for mechanical ventilation systems and redesign work where there is needed,” said Barton.
While the re-introduction of face masks in classrooms and roll-out of the vaccine among teenagers may partially obstruct the path of the Coronavirus, “we need to follow other countries and approve vaccination for all five to 11-year-olds, not just the small proportion who are clinically vulnerable or who live with someone who is clinically vulnerable,” said Majeed.