Calls for government clarity for schools as living with COVID "presents new challenges" warn education leaders

The city's education spokesman and union reps have called for more clarity from the government as desire to get back to 'normal' is mixed with fears COVID cases will spike.

Thursday, 2nd September 2021, 4:45 am

Concern has been expressed, ahead of a return to classrooms after the summer holidays, about what will happen when thousands of pupils head back to school - without the structure of bubbles, social distancing and other COVID measures such as mask-wearing as well as changing guidelines about isolation.

With a dramatic increase in cases predicted, there are calls for the government and the Department for Education (DfE) to make decisions now about at what point extended safety measures should be triggered, what happens if staff and students have to be sent home to isolate and how will further disruption be taken into account when it comes to judgement of school results and performance.

Coun Jonathan Pryor, Executive Member for Learning, Skills, Employment & Equality at Leeds City Council said local authority schools were putting in place extra ventilation and cleaning and while school staff welcome guidelines about practical measures such as hand-washing and sanitising, it is when government guidelines change rapidly in a short space of time that is causing an extra headache for school staff.

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A new normal as children across the city return to school this month.

He told the Yorkshire Evening Post: "My greatest fear with the government is whether they have learned anything over how they treated schools over the last year. Throughout the whole period of the pandemic we have had chaotic government announcements, last minute decisions making additional pressures on school staff.

"I have not come across teachers who are not happy about the extra COVID security measures but the frustrations have been about the way the government dishes out rules. It (the lifting of restrictions) is almost new territory, the same way that we were at the start of the pandemic. This is a new stage. The government is taking us to a place where we are living with the virus and that will present new challenges"

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They have also called on education secretary, Gavin Williamson to support schools in keeping face coverings from day one of term, social distancing where possible and special consideration for vulnerable staff.

Coun Jonathan Pryor, Executive Member for Learning, Skills, Employment & Equality for Leeds City Council.

Kevin Courtney, NEU Joint General Secretary, said: "The school community, including parents, students and staff, constitutes millions of people and we must expect cases to start to rise when schools return, especially when mitigations have been removed.

“We cannot pretend that schools are disconnected from society, we cannot ignore the fact that children and staff will have to self-isolate if they test positive, nor that a smaller number will miss more school because of longer Covid symptoms. The success of the vaccination programme has not yet eradicated the challenges facing schools and colleges. Nor, on its own, will a week of testing.

"The Government's own contingency framework sets a very high threshold for the numbers of cases sufficient to trigger extended safety measures. The DfE should be working with school and college leaders to do all that they reasonably can at the start of term to avoid reaching that point. Leaders will want to consider continuing with face coverings in secondary schools, social distancing where possible, and special arrangements for vulnerable staff."

He added that despite the safety concerns, no-one wants young people to be stuck at home.

. "Every school and college is different, but the goal this September is common to all: none of us want to see young people stuck at home. We believe they must be engaged in full on-site education and leaders, and teachers and support staff will do everything they reasonably can to make sure that remains the case.

"School and college leaders are tasked with a great responsibility as they return from the summer break. Teachers and support staff feel this, too. The danger is not that schools and colleges will be slow to act, but that Government is."

Coun Pryor said that in Leeds the council was refreshing its approach to achievement, attainment and attendance and would continue to place emphasis on well-being of pupils and students rather than pushing the catch up from days lost.

It comes as new data, analysed by the House of Commons Library, shows the UK has had longer school closures than any European country other than Italy. Since January 2020, shortly before Covid hit, UK children have been out of their classrooms on nearly half (44 per cent) of days.

He added: "There is a real appetite to make sure that kids catch up on all experiences, not just academic. We as a council and a family of schools in Leeds will do everything we can to help kids catch up but it is not just about attainment. We need to make sure they catch up on opportunities for sports, arts and culture. Being a child is not just about learning - it is the whole collection of experiences."