Headteacher warns hidden cost of COVID is now taking its toll in schools as surge of teachers and children succumb to illness and isolation
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A head-teacher at an inner city primary says his staff are "exhausted", nearly all have been ill with COVID in the last six months, some have left Leeds to go back to family homes due to fear of being trapped alone in a city centre flat in another lockdown - while Key Stage 1 children are now three years into formal education but have not yet had a 'normal' year of schooling.
Sam Done, principal at Hillcrest Academy, near Harehills, said there had been more cases of COVID in children during the last four weeks than there had during the last two years and it was a "daily battle" just to keep school open.
Four classes have been closed in the last four weeks compared to just four having had to close in the last two years.
In an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Evening Post, he said: "There are so many daily battles just to keep school open. We just want to get back to the basics of education but there are so many health and safety battles in the way. It is a massive strain on the teaching profession.
"I was in a headteachers' meeting recently and it is not just isolated to us. It is the picture across the city and, in particular since Christmas, coming back in January all of us have noticed a spike. Yorkshire is behind the curve, nationally it has peaked, but Yorkshire was behind and now we are seeing the impact of that."
Mr Done added that in the last six months almost every staff member had been off sick with COVID, supply teachers are rarely available because of the same reason or demand and Hillcrest had also lost staff due to personal reasons highlighted by the pandemic and lockdowns.
Department for Education showed that nationally, one in 20 pupils were out of class due to the pandemic on January 20, 415,300 pupils were absent in total, of whom 321,800 had a confirmed case of coronavirus. This is twice as many as January 6, and almost triple the 110,900 pupils off school before Christmas. A record number of teachers and head teachers were also absent on January 20.
He said: "In the first two years of COVID we had in total, 20 cases. We have comfortably managed that in the last four weeks for child cases, so it has condensed into a very short space of time.
"As a school we have made sure that whatever the guidance is, we have gone above and beyond. We maintained face masks and handwashing at seven points across the school day. Certain aspects have become harder to manage because it (COVID) is more prevalent and because there are no longer requirements to isolate. We have got families where three members have got COVID but the fourth can come to school. They may be asymptomatic but might be carrying the virus.
"With previous lockdowns we were more in control. It was black and white, there were no grey areas. When you have grey areas they are open to interpretation and personal choice.
"In terms of vaccines for young people, I have seen no negative data (around that). Above all we want to protect lives and if the science is telling us that vaccines are the way to go in terms of improving survival rates, we will follow the guidance."
More pressing, he added, was the effect that is now being seen on teachers and children who started school in 2020 but have not yet had a full year of face to face teaching. Going forward he feels the pandemic will continue to rule, even hour by hour, the way that schools are run for a long time to come.
"Professionals are exhausted. They have gone above and beyond for two years for children and the community. They have come into school, rain or shine, and put themselves at risk to the point where they are exhausted, their immune systems have taken a hammering, they are more prone to illness because they have been slogging it out for two years.
"It is all the hidden cost of COVID and we are worried about the long term damage. Some of our children in year two have not had a proper year of education without COVID, from reception they have not known any different. We can go to remote learning but there is no substitute for face to face teachers.
"We have six and seven year-olds that are in their third formal year of education and not had a full year. Nobody knows the long term cost of that."
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