Schools rising to new set of Covid challenges after post-Christmas return

A secondary school student wears mask but most will be learning from home on their return in January.

A secondary school student wears mask but most will be learning from home on their return in January. - Credit: PA

Schoolchildren and staff are rising to the challenges of new restrictions and a new term - but some fears remain over absences, mask-wearing and chilly classrooms. 

Pupils returned to the classroom from the Christmas break last week against a backdrop of rising Covid cases across the region and new government guidelines calling for mask-wearing at secondary level.

And with pressure on schools to keep their buildings ventilated, the chill of winter poses an additional challenge as youngsters go about their education.

But headteachers across the region say that so far pupils and staff alike are rising to the continued challenge of learning alongside Covid.

Sir John Leman High School, in Beccles, is one that has come in for criticism from parents on social media over chilly conditions - with the school having suffered from failures in two of its three boilers.

Sir John Leman High School headteacher Michael Taylor.PHOTO: Nick Butcher

Sir John Leman High School headteacher Michael Taylor.PHOTO: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

It has led to headteacher Michael Taylor temporarily lifting a restriction on pupils being allowed to wear coats indoors until the heating is repaired.

He said: "I did get anxious about it as wearing coats indoors can make students feel a little bit less settled but I think everyone is grasping the need to just get on with things. 

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"We had already brought in masks in October in response to a spate of cases we had in the autumn, so pupils are getting a lot more used to wearing them.

"I have received a few passionate letters from parents but overall we haven't really had any real issues."

The school took part in a mass testing programme ahead of the new term, which returned just six positive cases from its 1,450 pupils.

Hobart High School headteacher Jim Adams.
PHOTO: Nick Butcher

Hobart High School headteacher Jim Adams. PHOTO: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

Jim Adams, chief executive of the Clarion Academy Trust, said the response from staff and students across his schools had been "incredibly positive."

He said: "In our secondary schools we have followed the DfE guidance by strongly recommending wearing facemasks in the school building, including classrooms. We've had no issue whatsoever.

"The students and parents have been very supportive of the measure. Some students are even opting for wearing facemasks outside. For a vast majority of children, it really isn't a problem.

"Ventilation can be an issue, particularly when the temperature is low. We have allowed children to wear their coats inside and this has helped. Again, students and staff have adapted well and are very pragmatic."

He added: "Attendance for both staff and children was a real challenge before Christmas [but] so far we have been pleasantly surprised with relatively low levels of absence.

"That could change quickly - the next two weeks could be critical."

Scott Lyons, from the National Education Union. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Scott Lyons, from the National Education Union. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

But Scott Lyons, district secretary of the National Education Union, stressed that staff shortages were still causing headaches among many of the region's primary schools.

He said: "Primaries are still really struggling [with staff absences]. It only really takes a few members to be off then you have support staff being asked to lead classes and schools needing to rely on cover support that just isn't there.

"It probably isn't quite as bad as some expected but there is always the risk of more absences which could come in the next few weeks."

Mr Lyons added that in secondary school some tension had been created by exemptions from mask-wearing.

Sarah Godbold, of the Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust

Sarah Godbold, of the Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust - Credit: DNEAT

Sarah Godbold, executive headteacher of The Churchside Federation, in Gooderstone and Mundford, added: “It is clear that the pandemic will continue to put pressure on our schools and the wider education system due to high staff and pupil absences because of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

"We will endeavour to ensure that disruption to our children’s education is kept to a minimum but as with all sectors isolation, illness and long Covid impacts on the day to day logistical running of schools and supply teachers can often be hard to come by.

"We have contingency plans for remote learning if staffing shortages do occur but this will be a last resort as the best place for our children to learn and develop is to be physically in our schools.”

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