Norfolk school closures approach 130 as Covid crisis deepens

Bob Groome of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

Bob Groome, from Norfolk NEU. - Credit: Archant

Schools are facing their biggest challenge since the coronavirus pandemic began, the executive headteacher of four Norwich primary schools has said - with more than 120 across the county having not reopened today.

Scores of schools across Norfolk have kept their doors closed this morning amid concerns over the safety of children, staff and families.

While the government had said secondary schools would have a phased reopening, prime minister Boris Johnson had said primary schools would reopen from today.

But, according to the Norfolk County Council emergency school closures website, 124 have not.

It comes after the National Education Union (NEU) advised members it would not be safe to return to classrooms today.

That led to many schools taking the decision to keep their doors shut, with many saying they could not guarantee safety due to staff shortages.

The increased rates of the new Covid-19 variant are among the concerns.

A study has shown 81pc of cases of Covid-19 at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital have been traced back to that variant.

Some schools have signalled they will remain closed for at least the rest of the week, some will reopen tomorrow or Wednesday, while some have said they will only reopen for the children of key workers and vulnerable children.

Norfolk County Council has said it is up to individual heads and governing bodies whether to open and that it would support their decisions.

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Binks Neate-Evans is executive principal at Bignold Primary and Nursery, Angel Road Junior and Angel Road Infant and Nursery schools in Norwich.

Binks Neate-Evans, executive principal of Bignold and Angel Road schools

Binks Neate-Evans. - Credit: Evolution Academy Trust

While today is an INSET day for her schools, she is planning for the Angel Road schools to reopen tomorrow, while Bignold will reopen for children of key workers and vulnerable children.

She said: "I think this is the most challenging time we have had since the pandemic started.

"The increased worry about the new variant has added another dimension to it.

"What's very difficult for parents, schools and children has been the uncertainty, because this affects everybody.

"We have had great support from families. I think parents do understand, but it doesn't take away the difficulties for them.

"I understand that when you've got one school which is able to open and another that isn't, that is frustrating and confusing."

Mrs Neate-Evans said schools needed clarity, rather than having to second guess what the government may or may not announce.

She said: "This lack of clarity is taking leaders away from teaching and learning and that's what will be detrimental to the children.

"We want to be able to focus on making sure whatever provision there is - if that is online learning if schools are shut - is as good as it could possibly be.

"We need to be able to provide continuity of learning and to really be able to focus on getting more support for the children who might be slipping behind."

Mrs Neate-Evans said she had received good support from Norfolk County Council and that its approach to leave decisions to heads and governing bodies had been "very measured and supportive".

Bob Groome, joint branch and district secretary for NEU Norfolk, which had advised its members it would not be safe to return to the classroom, said the government needed to follow the science.

Bob Groome of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

Bob Groome, from Norfolk NEU. - Credit: Archant

He said government advisors SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), in a report produced before Christmas, had advised ministers to close schools and that the new variant meant they could not be sure a national lockdown like in March would  be enough to get the coronavirus R rate below 1.

Mr Groome said: "The government says it follows the science and the science says it is not safe to keep schools open, so we'd like them to keep following the science."

Mr Groome said he had been carrying out risk assessments in Norfolk schools and no matter what measures were introduced it remained hard to prevent primary school age children from mixing.

He said: "No matter what measures you put in place - one way routes, no mixing of classes and so on, you've still got children sitting four around a table in classrooms, shoulder to shoulder.

"There was a school in Norfolk where the virus went through the senior leadership team like a dose of salts and that made people sit up and think 'This is serious'.

"I have had members on the phone to me in tears because they have been told they need to go into schools, but they've got a clinically vulnerable partner at home.

"My personal opinion is that, if schools were closed like they were in the first lockdown in the spring, we could get the R rates down.

"Should they have reopened in September? Possibly not and if they had we might have had more control over this virus.

"We should follow the SAGE advice and the schools should shut. And then, if we look at the data around January 18, maybe they could open again if the rates have dropped."

The Inspiration Trust reopened its primary schools - Norwich Primary Academy, Charles Darwin Primary and Nursery, Cobholm Primary Academy and Great Yarmouth Primary Academy.

A spokesperson for The Inspiration Trust said: "We're proud of the commitment our teams have shown throughout this crisis.

"They have been determined to educate children and support local families.

"As a trust, we've been working hard to make sure our staff are as safe as possible and receive the support they need.

"The safety of our families, colleagues and wider community remains our top priority during this difficult time.

"We're reviewing the situation constantly."

Queen's Hill Primary and Nursery School in Queens Hills at Costessey, was among those schools which did open.

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Penny Sheppard, head teacher of Queen's Hill Primary and Nursery School. - Credit: Archant

Head teacher Penny Sheppard said: "Once the day started, the atmosphere has been calm and purposeful.

"We have had 68pc attendance today with a small number of parents choosing to keep their child off for a day or two to see what happens nationally.

"We have received a number of emails from parents and carers, whether their child is in school or not, to thank us for keeping them up to date with plans and for the procedures we have in place.  

"We have had to use some of our bank relief staff to cover absence due to Covid and non-Covid related illnesses."It wasn’t the start to term we had hoped for and Sunday was spent answering emails and phone calls from worried and anxious parents and staff."However, it now feels very much like it did last term. We have the same risk assessments in place, but have said that if staff want to, they can wear face masks in class now - previously they were just when they left their class bubble."And we have asked parents to wear face masks for pick up and drop off time."The older children have been reminded about the government guidelines for outside of school - such as no mixing of households and are aware of how important it is that we keep to the rules to try to keep everyone as safe as possible."

The decision by many schools to remain shut has prompted a mixed reaction among parents and the wider community.

Posts on the EDP Facebook site show many are in support of them remaining shut, but others have criticised the decisions.

Charlie Barnard-Laker said: "Well done teachers for standing up for your rights, your safety, the safety of the kids and the community."

And Janet Page said: "If the government wants schools open, give teachers priority vaccine and supply with PPE."

Paul Hoque said: "If schools are deemed unsafe in London which is in tier 4 then the same should be said for Norfolk schools - the virus is completely out of control and anybody that doesn't see the obvious has their heads buried in the sand. It's not rocket science."

Bea Amy Gibson-French posted: "Well done to all those that closed and to Norfolk county council who supported schools to close with the National Education Union's work too.

"This is the right thing to do. But sometimes the right thing isn’t easy and I know this isn’t easy on anyone. It could’ve not been left to the last minute though."

But Alexander Jackson said: "Teachers are amazing, it’s the teaching unions trying to collapse the government in a national emergency which is the issue.

"Teachers care about the children, the unions are playing politics with children.

"How many parents will lose a day wages today to look after their children? Plunging them into financial hardship. The unions should be ashamed they are a disgrace."

And Connie Vallis said: "Kids have been going to school since September and no one has batted an eye.

"The fact is that the world has to keep on turning and who’s going to be looking after all these children while their parents go to work?

"My daughter has been going to school all the way through Covid and there hasn’t been a single case at her primary school so it is possible to make them safe."

Rob Dean posted: "Funny how on Friday last week our school was saying send the kids in or face being fined, then the teaching union has a meeting over the weekend and suddenly there's a huge lack of staff in 100+ schools so they can just close them all for at least two weeks (as stated on our school letter) at a drop of a hat.

"Does this mean we can now fine the school/council for every week they make us keep the kids at home which then stops us parents from doing our own jobs? The fines should work both ways."

Health secretary Matt Hancock insisted it is safe for primary schools to reopen in all but the worst-hit areas of England.

Heath Secretary Matt Hancock speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday. Photo: House of Common/PA Wire

Health secretary Matt Hancock. - Credit: PA

He said teachers are at no greater risk of contracting the disease than the rest of the population.

"There is clear public health advice behind the position that we have taken and that is what people should follow because, of course, education is very important as well, especially for people's long-term health," he told Sky News.

But the government is coming under pressure from unions in the education sector to order a "pause" in a return to the classroom until the safety of staff and pupils can be guaranteed.

Mr Johnson has said there was "no question" about the need for tougher measures, to be announced "in due course".

Norfolks MPs have praised Boris Johnsons dynamism and resolve as they shared messages of support fol

Prime minister Boris Johnson. - Credit: PA

In a joint statement, the GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, Unison and Unite unions said there is a "serious risk" of staff falling ill while the rate of infection is so high.

"The government's chaotic handling of the opening of schools has caused confusion for teachers, school staff and parents alike," they said.

"Bringing all pupils back into classrooms while the rate of infection is so high is exposing education sector workers to serious risk of ill-health and could fuel the pandemic."

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said there needs to be a "stronger set" of coronavirus restrictions in place with a clear "stay at home" message to the public.

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