Schools facing 'carbon monoxide' of staff burnout and recruitment woes
- Credit: PA
Norfolk's schools are facing a "carbon monoxide" of burned-out staff and recruitment struggles against a backdrop of Covid outbreaks, it has been warned.
The county recently passed 100,000 cases of coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic, over the course of an 18 months which saw school staff and children forced to cope with ever-changing demands and pressures.
From constant moving of goalposts over exams to having to seamlessly switch between home-schooling and classroom bubbles, the pandemic posed unprecedented challenges for everyone across the education system.
While school environments are as close now to the pre-pandemic period than they have been in some time, the virus itself is still rife among pupils and staff alike.
But union bosses have warned that the aftermath of this challenging period is already showing its head - and could be devastating.
Scott Lyons, district secretary of the Norfolk branch of the National Education Union, said: "There is a carbon monoxide in schools that really needs talking about and that is a huge wave of burnout of teachers and other members of staff at schools. School staff have just been expected to absorb and absorb pressure and it's getting to the point that they can't absorb any more."
Mr Lyons said schools were having to deal with high turnovers in staff, particularly teaching assistants, with some choosing to leave roles, take early retirement or require long periods of sick leave and were struggling to recruit replacements.
He said: "Teaching assistants had to soak up a lot more strain in schools so many are deciding the amount they get paid just doesn't warrant the stress levels they are expected to take.
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"And it's just becoming far less of an attractive proposition."
Since returning from the October half term, case numbers among school-aged children have been steadily on the rise again, after hitting unprecedented levels before.
It has caused logistical problems for schools as they remain under pressure to avoid emergency closures. Garrick Green Infant School, in Old Catton, Norwich, recently had to find a way of remaining open with five out of its six class teachers off fighting the virus.
The school avoided a full closure but was forced to tell two of its classes to stay away and learn at home through the school's online resource base.
Speaking to BBC Radio Norfolk, headteacher Rebecca Dewing said: "It has been extremely challenging."
She added that absences were leaving schools in tough positions, both in terms of struggling to source supply teachers and justifying the costs of drafting supply in, when class numbers may prove diminished by the virus as it is.
Rebecca Newman, executive head of Easton, Hockering and Great Witchingham primary schools, said: "I think there is an expectation that things are back to normal, but they really aren't.
"I think understandably staff are still being cautious but the problem is when absences snowball. Supply is like gold dust at the moment as there is such a demand for it."
She added that one day recently saw Hockering open with just 14 out of 48 pupils present and that the three schools had been forced to cancel their annual nativity plays - instead recording versions parents can watch on video at a later date.
Oliver Burwood, chief executive of the Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust (DNEAT) said: "Our academy staff are working tirelessly to ensure that schools are open, safe and happy. What we are noticing is that we will get 'flare ups' at specific sites, which can affect both staff and children.
"The biggest difficulty facing us in such a situation is the lack of availability of supply staff, which is part of a wider current recruitment challenge. So far our headteachers have been fantastic in shuffling the staff that they do have available to meet the needs of children and we'd like to thank them and all academy staff for their creativity and tenacity in meeting this very real challenge."