‘We listen to pupils coughing down the phone’: How one school is fighting virus

Sarah Shirras, headteacher at St Williams Primary in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich, has lifted the lid o

Sarah Shirras, headteacher at St Williams Primary in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich, has lifted the lid on how the school is operating during the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Simon Parkin - Credit: Simon Parkin

Staff listening to pupils coughing down the phone has become the new normal as schools look to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Pupils are grouped into year bubbles and eat lunch in classrooms at St Williams Primary School in Th

Pupils are grouped into year bubbles and eat lunch in classrooms at St Williams Primary School in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich. Picture: Simon Parkin - Credit: Simon Parkin

Sarah Shirras, headteacher at St William’s Primary School in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich, revealed assessing children’s ailments remotely has become commonplace since the new term began in September.

More intense working days for teachers, new classroom layouts and preparing for the possibility of another lockdown have also been on the agenda.

Mrs Shirras, chairman of Norfolk Schools’ Forum, has lifted the lid on some of the education sector’s inner workings as it operates in unfamiliar territory.

She said dealing with the threat of illness - and knowing when a child’s cough is “not just a cough” - has been one of the toughest challenges.

Sarah Shirras, headteacher at St Williams Primary in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich, has lifted the lid o

Sarah Shirras, headteacher at St Williams Primary in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich, has lifted the lid on how the school is operating during the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Brittany Woodman - Credit: Archant


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“Obviously there are the three main symptoms we are told to look out for,” added Mrs Shirras. “Temperatures are easy to spot and loss of taste hasn’t really been an issue among children.

“The big problem is dealing with coughs. It is meant to be a new continuous cough, so for example we have children who suffer from asthma and that is not a new cough.

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“We have had to have conversations with parents where we have listened to their children’s cough down the phone.

“There have been lots of colds - more than usual, in fact, but we can’t just send pupils home because they have a runny nose.

Year 1 teacher Bronwyn Coleman washes her hands in newly-installed extra sinks at St Williams Primar

Year 1 teacher Bronwyn Coleman washes her hands in newly-installed extra sinks at St Williams Primary School in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich. Picture: Simon Parkin - Credit: Simon Parkin

“Families are being very cooperative and erring on the side of caution which is completely understandable. We know some schools are being really cautious, but we think we have struck a really good balance.”

Parents, pupils and teachers knew, as schools reopened last month, that there would be some distinct differences following their six-month closure.

Year group bubbles, one-way systems, staggered start times and extra cleaning were just some of the measures being put in place to protect thousands of children and their families across the region.

But a survey conducted by this newspaper at the start of September revealed almost half of Norfolk and Waveney parents were worried about youngsters returning to the classroom.

Year 6 teacher Dave Moreton preparing his classroom at St Williams Primary School in Thorpe St Andre

Year 6 teacher Dave Moreton preparing his classroom at St Williams Primary School in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich. Picture: Simon Parkin - Credit: Simon Parkin

With a whole of host changes being introduced, Mrs Shirras emphasised that the vast majority of pupils had adjusted admirably.

“The reality is lots of things are the same, but the children really notice the differences,” she said.

“The children say the biggest difference is that they don’t get to see other year groups.

“We are not having assemblies and, for example, on Wednesday our caretaker left and we had a zoom call to say goodbye. It was nice for the children to see each other’s faces.

Sarah Shirras, headteacher at St Williams Primary in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich, has lifted the lid o

Sarah Shirras, headteacher at St Williams Primary in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich, has lifted the lid on how the school is operating during the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Simon Parkin - Credit: Simon Parkin

“Year 6 would usually have lots of new responsibilities, so unfortunately they missing out on a lot of the perks of being in their final year.

“And those extra things like discos and some of the after-school clubs have been cancelled as well.”

Teachers, too, have had to make major alterations to their daily routines.

The presence of fewer staff supervisors at St Williams’s - designed to reduce unnecessary contact - means they are in contact with their classes for a much higher percentage of the school day.

Headteacher Sarah Shirras in a classroom set out to limit the spread of coronavirus at St Williams P

Headteacher Sarah Shirras in a classroom set out to limit the spread of coronavirus at St Williams Primary School in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich. Picture: Simon Parkin - Credit: Simon Parkin

“Teachers have quite an instinctive way of working and they have had to adjust to a new way of doing things,” added Mrs Shirras.

“Their days have become quite intense, but they are working really hard to get things right for each child.”

While staff would rather not contemplate a second lockdown, their experience of one has put them in a far better position to prepare for another.

For several months, many parents were forced to become teachers overnight as they battled to keep up with their own rapidly-changing day jobs.

Year 3 teacher using one of the newly-installed hand sanitising stations at St Williams Primary Scho

Year 3 teacher using one of the newly-installed hand sanitising stations at St Williams Primary School in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich. Picture: Simon Parkin - Credit: Simon Parkin

If, as some experts have predicted, there is a winter spike in Covid-19 cases and schools must shut all over again, St William’s Primary hopes to significantly ease the homeschooling burden.

“What we’ve had to think about is getting all the home-learning material prepared,” said Mrs Shirras. “We have got to be ready if schools do shut again.

“In March we had two days’ notice, whereas now we are able to take more time to ensure children can make the most of school - even if they are not here.”

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