Schools in England affected by high numbers of Covid-19 cases among staff and students have been forced to re-wear masks, send whole-year groups home to study online, and in some circumstances shut early for half-term as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc in education.
A report published by the Guardian said the British government is facing serious controversy over the reopening of schools during the pandemic.
Despite the government’s narrative of a return to normal life in classrooms, schools in areas with high coronavirus rates say they have struggled to operate with many staff falling ill and issues securing supply teachers due to excessive demand.
This week, for example, one Devon school lost a third of its workforce, a school in Wiltshire had to send two-year groups home early for half the term, a Buckinghamshire junior school closed and moved to online learning. Meanwhile, in Northamptonshire, one primary school had nearly 50% of pupils on leave with Covid-19 over a period of about a week between the end of September and October 5.
“There’s never been such a hard half-term as this, during the whole pandemic. Schools have been thrown into this with no measures or restrictions and we’ve been told to deal with it,” said Ben Davis, principal at St Ambrose Barlow RC high school in Wardley, Greater Manchester.
According to the report, Covid rates were higher at his school than before, with 80 positive cases and up to 14 staff members at a time. Davis says on the advice of public health they have brought back masks in corridors and classrooms and to work with mask is much, much harder than it was, because there is no other place in their lives where children have to wear masks.
“Our Covid rates have remained high since the summer and are increasing – currently 555 per 100,000 – and half of all cases are in school-aged children,” said David Barton, CEO of the Cornwall Association of Secondary School Principals.
A Guardian callout to readers prompted dozens of responses from anxious teachers and parents. “All the hand sanitizing dispensers are empty and everyone is acting as if there is no pandemic at all,” said one secondary teacher.
“One class had 30% positive cases this week. Parents are demanding online learning for their sick children but we are on our knees just trying to keep classes running,” a high school teacher said.
Jules White, principal of Tanbridge House School in Horsham, West Sussex, said there had been around 200 student infections so far at his school.
“The pressures to support students who continue to see their learning disrupted are significant, especially when colleagues also experience periods of isolation that last for 10 days."
Confidence in the government is crumbling. “In the middle of the pandemic the government said all children’s schooling was their ‘first priority’,” said White.
The number of people testing positive for Covid in the UK has been rising in recent days to more than 50,000 cases in one day.
To date, 86% of people over the age of 12 have been vaccinated against Covid, with 79% having received two doses.
In England, more than 4.2 million people so far have also received a booster shot, with evidence showing that the effects of a shot do wane over time.