Latest COVID measures lead to delayed school term starts and "serious logistical challenge" warn city school leaders

Schools across the city are struggling to meet demands that have been placed on them with just hours notice as pupils return this week following the Christmas break.

By Emma Ryan
Wednesday, 5th January 2022, 4:45 am

One school has delayed the start of the new term in order to set up an on-site testing station that the Department for Education has now deemed mandatory for secondary schools, whilst other schools are looking at having to merge classes to deal with staff absences due to illness and isolation.

It comes as masks have been reintroduced in secondary classrooms, while all secondaries were asked to provide on-site testing for students ahead of their return to the classroom, and an additional 7,000 air cleaning units will be provided to schools, colleges and early years settings to improve ventilation in teaching spaces.

In addition to the logistics of arranging this, school leaders are also trying to plan staffing levels and the impact this will have on face to face teaching.

Face masks and testing on-site have been re-introduced at secondary schools as pupils and staff return following the Christmas holidays.

David Holtham, Executive Principal of Post 16 education at The GORSE Academies Trust, was critical of just 36 hours notice being given to schools about the latest raft of measures, adding that the Trust was dealing with "noticeable staff absences".

He said: “School leaders are once again facing a complex range set of issues, with Government guidance provided a mere 36 hours before the start of the new term. The challenges range from testing pupils, the majority of our students and staff body require tests as they return to school, which creates a serious logistical challenge for institutions set up to deliver education not diagnostic testing, as well as managing the ongoing issues caused by necessary staff absence.

"Most of our schools within the Trust have noticeable staff absences through positive Covid-19 cases, however, our priority remains doing everything we can to keep students in school, including solutions such as merging classes. We are conscious about pulling staff from pastoral and safeguarding roles to cover lessons as these are critical to the wellbeing of students and their families, which was noted as a potential solution in the new Government guidance.

"Instead, we are supporting as many of our academies as we can by utilising our central trust team to help cover non-classroom based duties. However, it is a fast-moving situation and guidance is changing all the time so we will continue to remain adaptive.”

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Janet Sheriff OBE, the CEO of the Trust and executive headteacher at Prince Henry’s said: "Staff at Prince Henry’s and across all the Collaborative Learning Trust schools are really keen to welcome back students after the Christmas break.

"Obviously the high infection rates and updated government guidance has led to a more challenging start to the term – especially at Prince Henry’s Grammar School, where the start of term has been delayed in order to offer onsite COVID-19 testing to the students.

"Across the Trust headteachers have been busy communicating with parents, staff and students to make sure that they understand the changes to requirements e.g. the requirement for secondary school students to wear face coverings in classrooms and the approach to Lateral Flow Device testing and self-solation rules.

"Currently we have enough staff available to deliver the curriculum as usual and we hope this will continue. We do have contingency plans if cases continue to rise and staffing becomes an issues, but a return to remote learning for all students or even ‘bubbles’ will be avoided wherever possible."

Nationally, union leaders say it is creating another stressful time for teachers and staff.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said: "They are hoping the extra measures will be enough to minimise disruption to education this term, but only the next few weeks will show how effective they really are. The biggest concern is staffing. Teachers and school staff will be testing and reporting their results at the start of this week and only then will school leaders know who they have available and be able to properly plan.

"School leaders will be doing everything possible to ensure a smooth return and a successful term for their students, but depending on how infection rates progress, it could be another stressful time."

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