School leader claims Government has 'literally broken teachers'

School head says teachers are ‘literally broken’ after being forced to work over the Christmas break to prepare online lessons following government move to delay reopening of classes in New Year

  • Nicola Mason says staff at her school in Staffordshire are ‘literally broken’ 
  • Teachers will roll out Covid-19 testing of children and staff in the New Year
  • Secondary pupils’ return to class will be staggered in the first week of January
  • She says teachers will spend Christmas holidays planning for remote learning  

Nicola Mason, head of school at Chase Terrace Academy in Staffordshire said that her staff were ‘literally broken’ by the plans

A headteacher was left close to tears on BBC radio today after slamming plans for schools to roll out Covid-19 testing of children and staff in the New Year.

Nicola Mason, head of school at Chase Terrace Academy in Burntwood, Staffordshire, said in despair that her staff were ‘literally broken’ by the plans which intend to see secondary school pupils’ return to class in England staggered in the first week of January.

Her voice breaking, she said teachers were now facing spending their whole Christmas holidays planning for remote learning with the majority of pupils expected to start the term online.

Exam-year students will go back to school as normal after the Christmas holidays, but it is hoped the staggered return will allow headteachers to organise mass testing.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, an emotional Ms Mason said: ‘I’m not sure how leaders are expected to put it all into place.

‘It will mean that they have to plan throughout the whole of their Christmas break. We were already on standby for track and trace for the first six days of the holidays.

‘We were encouraged to use an inset day for today’s work, so the teachers at my school are all remote training at the moment today.

‘Yesterday, at the end of the day, we found out through BBC News, we weren’t even told directly that this was being put into place, and frankly I’m staggered.’

She said the school already had local authority teams who had planned to do testing, but they then found out their procedures were no longer ‘necessary’.

Staff at Chase Terrace Academy in Burntwood, Staffordshire, will work during their holidays to plan for remote learning with the majority of pupils expected to start the next term online

Ms Mason added that this the ‘Government have, at the very last minute, again, literally broken the teachers’.

She continued: ‘I’m going to have to spend the next few days, I’m going to go into school today when I was going to spend the day working from home.

‘But leaders are confused at best, the guidance is way too late to plan effectively, there are a number of things that we still don’t know.

‘We’ve got to plan now for remote learning. All our staff I’m sure have planned for face-to-face lessons in the first week back, so they’ve now got to spend their Christmas holidays planning for remote learning, because the resources that you use on remote learning sessions are different because you’re using a laptop, you’re having to send resources, you’re having to prepare that via online platforms.’

Shadow Chancellor Annaliese Dodds talks to pupils during a visit to St Mary’s Catholic High School in Croydon, South London, last month

She added that they need to recruit volunteers, but it would be ‘impossible’ to do this by January 4 because safeguarding checks would be required.

School Covid outbreaks may be down to several introductions of virus

School outbreaks of Covid-19 may be due to the virus being taken into each school several times rather than transmission between pupils, a leading Public Health England (PHE) expert has said.

Dr Shamez Ladhani, a PHE consultant epidemiologist and chief investigator on a new study looking at coronavirus in schools, said experts are building a picture of how transmission happens, and whether schools introduce infection into the community or vice versa.

Early findings from a small study he oversees suggest that the proportion of schoolchildren and teachers with coronavirus mirrors the proportion in the local community.

In a briefing with reporters, Dr Ladhani said it is clear there has been a week-on-week increase in infections in schools since early autumn.

He said the rate of infection goes up with age, with the highest rates in Years 11 (age 15-16) and 13 (age 17-18).

But he added: ‘We know that there is infection happening in school-age children. What we don’t know is the dynamics of that infection – whether it is occurring in school, or outside schools or at home.

‘What we need to do more is try to understand how much of the infections are occurring through transmission within schools and how much of the infections are occurring outside schools so that we can try and identify measures to mitigate this transmission to even lower levels.’

He said infection rates in schools could appear high in some regions because cases drop far more slowly among children than they do among adults.

PHE outbreak investigations have suggested there are different introductions of the virus into each school ‘rather than the virus being transmitted from a child in Year 1 to Year 3,’ Dr Ladhani said.

‘At the moment, a lot of the infections in schools and the outbreaks that you hear about does suggest they are different infections entering – sort of what we call multiple introductions – into schools, because they’re related to Year 1 and Year 4, Year 6 and Year 2, and so on.

‘There’s not many outbreaks where six children in the same bubble, for example, all get infected in a timely way (where) you think that they passed it on to each other.’

However, he said the information ‘is a little sparse, and we need to do a lot more detailed investigation to try and answer those questions.’

Genetic studies to track the virus in schools are planned, he added.

In the new Schools Infection Study, released on Thursday, PHE, the Office for National Statistics and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) sampled 105 schools and found similar levels of infection in schools as in the community.

Teachers and pupils were tested when they did not have any coronavirus symptoms – which means they were tracked in a normal daily school environment.

The data does not take account of pupils and teachers who were at home with coronavirus or who were isolating because they were close contacts.

The data included 63 secondary and 42 primary schools in 14 local authorities, of which nine areas had high rates of Covid-19 and five had low rates.

Overall, 9,662 teachers and pupils took part in the study over several days in November.

The findings showed that 1.24 per cent of pupils and 1.29 per cent of staff overall tested positive for current infection – similar to the 1.2 per cent reported in the community.

In high prevalence areas, 1.47 per cent of pupils and 1.5 per cent of staff tested positive for current infection.

In low prevalence areas, this was 0.79 per cent of pupils and 0.87 per cent of staff.

Infection rates were higher in secondary schools compared with primary schools, but experts said this was not statistically significant.

Of the 105 schools surveyed, 47 (44.8 per cent) schools had no current infections, 29 (27.6 per cent) had one current infection and the remaining 29 (27.6 per cent) schools had between two and five current infections.

Dr Ladhani said: ‘While there is still more research to be done, these results appear to show that the rate of infection among students and staff attending school closely mirrors what’s happening outside the school gates.

‘That’s why we all need to take responsibility for driving infections down if we want to keep schools open and safe for our children.’

Dr Ladhani said it is right, in his opinion, to prioritise keeping children in school.

‘It’s not just about their education, it’s about their growth, it’s about their upbringing, it’s about their social skills, it’s about interacting with others, it’s about their mental health, it’s about making sure they get fed properly and they have access to social services,’ he said.

‘The list goes on and on and on and it is so difficult to measure, yet we know that it’s so important that we keep children in school, physically, so that there is some sort of normality in people’s lives.’

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘We already know that schools are safe for the vast majority of children and that school staff are at no more risk than any other profession.

‘I agree with the authors’ interpretation. Though there have been many Covid-19 cases in schools, there is little evidence that schools are driving the epidemic, as some have suggested they might.’

Education unions are concerned about the logistics of setting up a mass testing programme and they have criticised the Government for making a last-minute announcement at the end of term.

Children in nursery and primary school will go back to class as normal in January, alongside students in exam years, key workers’ children and vulnerable pupils in secondary schools and colleges.

Ms Mason continued: ‘At the same times we have to organise consent and the logistics of testing. It’s all sorts of things, like my transport providers that normally bring 200 of our children to school don’t even know about whether they’re bringing children in in that week or not.

‘We’ve got 1,300 children in our school. About 1,100 of them are under 16. So it’s the logistics of getting that consent.

‘And at the same time as doing all of that, we’ve got key worker schools that we’re providing and rightly so we need to keep our vulnerable children safe and make sure that we accommodate our key worker children.

‘But there simply won’t be the staffing to run a key worker school as well as have all of our staff online remotely teaching lessons and having Year 11 and 13 in school.

‘And to be honest, we want our children in school. Our parents want our children in school. We can accommodate our children in school.

‘And if we’d done it in the way that the local authority had wanted and phased it in from January with a team of staff that we were working with, another local school, we would have managed it much more sensibly and in a much more responsible fashion.’

Guidance says all specialist settings and alternative provision should plan for full-time on-site provision for all pupils from the start of term.

But the Department for Education (DfE) has said secondary schools and colleges will offer remote education to all other students during the first week.

Face-to-face education for all students will resume on January 11.

In a written ministerial statement, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said schools will be allowed to use an extra inset day on January 4 to prepare for the testing of pupils and staff at the start of the spring term.

Mr Williamson said: ‘This targeted testing round will clamp down on the virus as students return from the Christmas break and help stop the spread of Covid-19 in the wider community.’

The announcement comes after Mr Williamson threatened legal action against Greenwich Council earlier this week after it advised schools to switch to remote education for most pupils in the last week of term.

Council leaders in Waltham Forest and Islington – who had also advised schools to move to online learning for the last few days of term amid rising coronavirus rates – were told to retract their advice.

When he was challenged on his decision to threaten councils with legal action, Mr Williamson told BBC News: ‘By taking these measures in secondary schools and colleges it means that we’re going to be able to maximise the amount of time children are in the classroom.

‘And at every stage, we will take a robust and strong stance to ensure schools are open because as the Chief Medical Officer for England said that actually children are best in schools.

‘It is the safest place for them to be. That’s why we continue to have a laser-like focus in terms of making sure children are in the classroom.’

Speaking to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Susan Acland-Hood, permanent secretary at the DfE, told MPs on Thursday that there were no ‘plans to lengthen the Christmas holiday’.

Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the PAC, said it was ‘ludicrous’ that parents and schools still did not know, on the final day of term for many schools in England, what was happening on the week commencing January 4.

Speaking about events in London this week, Ms Hillier said parents had had ‘very confusing messages’ from Government and local authorities and she described it as a ‘complete dog’s breakfast’.

Schools and colleges will be able to offer students two rapid tests three days apart on the first week of term as part of the rollout of testing.

Testing will be optional but strongly encouraged, particularly in areas of higher prevalence of the virus. Consent will be required from the student or parent.

The DfE has said guidance will be provided to schools and colleges shortly on how to set up and staff the testing sites.

Armed forces personnel will support through planning with schools and colleges and ‘reasonable’ workforce costs will be reimbursed, it said.

In a written ministerial statement, Mr Williamson said: ‘Schools and colleges that opt in will need to provide a few members of staff to support the testing programme.’

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said the Government’s announcement on the last day of term demonstrated ‘ministerial panic rather than rational and responsible action’ in response to the rise in Covid-19 rates among pupils.

She said: ‘Armed with a 30-minute training video, they are being asked to administer tests to adolescents – who may have their own views about what is quite an invasive procedure.’

Dr Bousted added: ‘The presence of year 11 and 13 pupils on the school site at the same time as the testing arrangements and procedures are being put in place will be extremely problematic.’

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: ‘By dropping this on schools minutes before the end of term, leaders are left with no time to implement Government’s instructions.’

He added: ‘Primary schools appear to have been completely ignored in this announcement. School staff and parents of younger children are rightly worried about transmission of the virus over Christmas and will struggle to understand why they are being treated differently.

‘Once again, an announcement that, if properly planned and executed could have been positive, is poised to fail.’ 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said schools will be allowed to use an extra inset day on January 4 to prepare for the testing of pupils and staff at the start of the spring term

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: ‘We are very concerned about the feasibility of setting up a testing programme at the scale envisaged.

‘We welcome the limited support we understand will be available, but this is a huge exercise requiring processes to be established and communicated, parental permission to be obtained, and doubtless innumerable other logistical issues to be overcome.’

Secondary school pupils have among the highest infection rates, but early findings from a study suggest that the proportion of pupils and teachers with Covid-19 mirrors the proportion in the local community.

Of the 105 schools in England in the survey, 1.24 per cent of pupils and 1.29 per cent of staff tested positive for Covid-19 between November 3 and 19, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Year 2 Pupils at Manor Park School and Nursery in Knutsford, Cheshire, perform their Christmas nativity play which is recorded by headteacher Simon Cotterill last Thursday

The survey also found that 27.6 per cent of schools had one current infection, 27.6 per cent had between two and five, and 44.8 per cent had none.

Schools in Wales will also use staggered returns for pupils in January.

The new term will start on the fourth day of the month with online learning continuing for most learners, with face-to-face learning expected to return for most by January 11 and a full return before January 18.

Secondary schools and colleges in Wales moved to online learning on Monday in an effort to reduce the transmission of Covid-19.

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