The return to school of all pupils in September was viewed by many as an essential step towards restoring normality in the educational life of the UK’s children, and life in general, after months of lockdown as a result of the pandemic.
Yet, with ongoing outbreaks around the country, just how smoothly has this process taken place for the staff and pupils who have to contend with the daily challenges Covid has brought to the school environment?
A Challenging Return
Many heads are claiming that the demands of running a school, which are huge in normal times, have increased in a way that’s ‘off the chart’. Leaders and their staff have found themselves effectively on the frontline in managing a significant element of the public health response to the pandemic.
Head teachers of schools where there have been outbreaks report facing flak in the community for having ‘allowed’ Covid to rampage through their schools. Additionally, there are unrealistic expectations that up to 1500 pupils can socially distance on a school site and that pupil transport should be policed by teaching staff.
As it is, schools and colleges are creating vigorously patrolled and confined environments, so says Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.
For this reason, building pupil resilience has been identified as a key objective by Lee Batstone, head teacher of a Herefordshire Primary. He and his team have focused on helping the children to look after themselves without becoming frightened of each other, which he sees as a potential long term effect the longer this continues.
While school staff do not underestimate the need for rigorous health and safety measures, it can feel like these have overtaken the important business of teaching.
Finding the Funds
Then there is the financial cost. Lee Batstone spent £10,000 on adapting the school to fulfil cleaning and physical distancing requirements. With the budget becoming increasingly stretched, he cautions that the longer this goes on without additional funding, the harder it will be.
The volume of admin has also spiralled. All this must be tackled before providing catch-up support and preparing students for GCSEs and A-levels-which have been described as remaining clouded in a mist of uncertainty.
Resilience is not an exhaustible commodity however, warns Geoff Barton.
To manage these considerable challenges he is calling for the implementation of an effective test and trace system, definite decisions over next year’s exams and the reimbursement of extra costs generated by Covid safety measures. He also proposes that Ofsted visits should be postponed and performance tables scrapped since they would become meaningless and unfair in the circumstances.
Testing for Teachers
Frustration has been growing at the lack of Covid testing for staff in English schools meaning that serious staff shortages could force partial closures. Some teachers are arguing for a planned rota system whereby pupils can easily switch between school and online learning at home-rather than moving to a rotation system by default each time a case is identified.
Indeed there are examples of teachers teaching their in-school class from home via video link due to the need for self-isolation.
Taking the positives from the situation, a North East primary teacher who recently experienced exactly this scenario, said it was beneficial to have some connection with her pupils each day to focus on maths and English and to have an opportunity to see their faces, and they hers.
With teaching staff going above and beyond the call of duty to keep children safe while at the same time striving to provide quality lessons, the following sentiment expressed by Geoff Barton seems no exaggeration;
‘As transmission of the virus spreads through communities, schools are desperately defending the ramparts.’