‘We’re fighting to stay open’ - Schools braced for ‘challenging’ return

Schools have put in place contingency measures ahead of thew return of pupils.

Schools have put in place contingency measures ahead of thew return of pupils. - Credit: PA

Schools are bracing themselves for the possible impact of staff and pupil absences as children return to classes after the Christmas holidays. 

Headteachers have warned staff shortages in the new term caused by teachers isolating because of positive lateral flow tests will be "challenging" for some schools and could lead to more pupils learning online.

P3 children sanitising their hands after playing outside of Springfield Primary School in Belfast. T

Children sanitising their hands in primary school. - Credit: PA

More than 200 Norfolk headteachers and education professionals meet over the New Year bank holiday to prepare for what looks to be a challenging start to 2022. 

The Zoom meeting, organised by headteacher’s association Educate Norfolk and attended by Norfolk County Council education and public health advisors, heard the main challenge will be whether there are adequate staffing levels.

Chris Snudden, director of learning and inclusion at Norfolk County Council, said: “What we all want is for schools to be open and for children to be learning in the classroom with their friends, taught by their usual teachers and support staff.

“And there was a real determination to do all we can to fight for this to happen. 

Chris Snudden, director of learning and inclusion for Norfolk children's services, part of Norfolk C

Chris Snudden, director of learning and inclusion for Norfolk children's services, part of Norfolk County Council. - Credit: Julian Claxton Photography

“Parents should expect there may be changes to the normal routine in the next few weeks, whether that is different adults teaching their children, slightly different lessons, or a short period of time learning from home.

“Please be understanding and be reassured your school will be doing everything possible to keep any disruption to an absolute minimum.”

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'We're determined to keep a sense of normality'

Penny Sheppard, headteacher at Queen's Hill Primary and Nursery School in Costessey, who attended the meeting, said: “School leaders are expecting another term of disruption but are absolutely determined to try to keep some sense of normality for our children and young people.

Penny Sheppard, headteacher at Queen's Hill Primary School in Costessey. Picture Bill Smith

Penny Sheppard, headteacher at Queen's Hill Primary School in Costessey. Picture Bill Smith

“Each school will have its individual contingency plan to cope with this. Merging classes may well be an option for some primary schools but in high schools and special schools it is likely to be more difficult. 

“At this point in the term none of us can predict how teaching and learning may be impacted in the next months. 

“The unknown factor is how many children and young people are likely to be infected, at the moment we know the current strain of the virus is more prevalent in younger adults.”

Joshua Lee disinfects tables at Queen's Hill Primary School in Costessey near Norwich, as they prepa

Schools are reintroducing measures including staggered starts, sanitising and extra cleaning. - Credit: PA

Glenn Russell, executive head teacher of Stalham Infant and Junior Schools, said its staff absences were low.

“We're keeping our fingers crossed,” he said. “The children's education is the priority as well as making sure everyone is safe, so it's a case of regular communication with staff and families about decisions and why we're making them, and reviewing them on a regular basis.

"I think all of us would like to avoid home-schooling because face-to-face teaching is the best thing for children for education."

Shannon O’Sullivan, headteacher of Thomas Bullock Primary Academy in Shipdham, said: “We are aware we will continue to have staff shortages and will support this in-house as much as possible - however this continues to be a challenge to all schools.”

Thomas Bullock Primary Academy headteacher Shannon O’Sullivan.

Thomas Bullock Primary Academy headteacher Shannon O’Sullivan. - Credit: Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust

Return of face-masks and in-school Covid testing

Secondary students will have to wear masks once again to help reduce the spread of the Omicron variant while some schools are staggering the return to allow for Covid testing that could see many pupils also having to isolate.

North Walsham High School said ahead of the return of pupils there were three staff who would be absent which it was able to cover. 

Headteacher James Gosden said: “At this moment we are not close to home learning again but the key will be to see the impact on attendance when we return. 

“Attendance before Christmas took a real hit due to Covid-19 and associated isolations.”

Social distancing signage on view as children arrive at Outwood Academy in Woodlands, Doncaster in Y

Secondary school pupils will have to wear masks. - Credit: PA

At Smithdon High School in Hunstanton, three members of staff are off while the level of pupils unable to attend will be revealed by testing being held on Wednesday and Thursday.

"We have contingency plans in place, but we will be trying to keep all students in school at all times,” said headteacher John Hirst.

“We will, however, make judgments as and when it is needed depending on how the pandemic spreads."

Jon Ford, principal at Open Academy in Norwich, said: “The issues that Covid bring are still ever present, and we have, once again, fine-tuned our return procedures to be fully in line with the latest government guidance.”

The school is again using staggered lunchtimes and breaks and one-way systems to avoid face-to-face contact.

Jon Ford, principal of Open Academy Norwich.

Jon Ford, principal of Open Academy Norwich. - Credit: DNEAT

Marshland High School at West Walton, near Wisbech, said it was “not anticipating any staffing difficulties” but it has a contingency plan in place that “prioritises keeping students in school even under significant staffing difficulties”.

The return of students is being staggered over three days for lateral flow testing.

Headteacher Craig Jansen said: “We as yet do not know how students' attendance will be affected by the increasing rise in Covid. 

“The school will continue to provide students who are self-isolating with access to live lessons from home as well as other online support.   

“Our students have shown themselves to be incredibly adaptable and resilient during periods when increased protective measures are needed in school.”

Rob Connelly, executive headteacher for the Harleston Federation

Rob Connelly, executive headteacher for the Harleston Federation. - Credit: St Benet's MAT

Rob Connelly, executive headteacher for the Harleston Federation, which includes Archbishop Sancroft High School (ASHS) and Harleston CfE Primary Academy, said on-site testing had placed a “significant strain” on staff. 

The school has recruited and trained ASHS alumni students and other members of the local community to support the process.

“Community safety and welfare remains our top priority and some of the changes that were announced on January 2 reflect contingency plans that we had already implemented during the autumn term, including the wearing of face coverings in classrooms as well as communal areas,” he said.

“Our students have responded in a mature and sensible fashion and this has not had a detrimental impact on the quality of learning experiences across the school.”

'Schools opening will see rise in infections'

Professor Neil Ferguson, director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperi

Professor Neil Ferguson, director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London. - Credit: PA

Infectious disease expert Professor Neil Ferguson has said that schools reopening is likely to cause an increase in coronavirus infections, but they will be mild.

He said: "The Delta infections in the last few months have been really driven by school-age children and by the older age groups in the population.

"Omicron slipped in the middle in 18 to 45-year-olds really but it didn't, as we heard, have much time to get into school children before schools shut and we expect to now see quite high infection levels, of mild infection I should emphasise, in school-age children."

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