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School return delayed at least until March

28 January 2021

Head teacher warns of a ‘devastating gap in human contact’


SCHOOLS will not reopen immediately for all pupils after the February half-term, but could do so from 8 March, the Prime Minister has said in response to the increasing pressure to set out a national emergency response to the impact of the pandemic on schoolchildren.

Mr Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday: “Our aim will be to set out a gradual and phased approach towards easing the restrictions in a sustainable way,” he said, “guided by the principles we’ve observed throughout the pandemic, beginning with the most important principle of all: that reopening schools must be our national priority. And the first sign of normality beginning to return should be pupils going back to their classrooms.”

He said that, while it would not be possible to reopen all schools after the February half-term, “if we achieve our target of vaccinating everyone in the four most vulnerable groups with their first dose by 15 February”, it was hoped that it would be “safe to begin the reopening of schools from Monday 8 March, with other economic and social restrictions being removed then or thereafter as the data permits”.

He confirmed that the Government would “prolong arrangements for providing free school meals for those eligible children not in school — including food parcels and the national voucher scheme — until they’ve returned to the classroom”.

Bishops have spoken about the widening inequality resulting from the lockdown, and Mr Johnson gave an assurance that “We will provide a programme of catch-up over the next financial year. This will involve a further £300 million of new money to schools for tutoring. . . And a Covid premium to support catch-up.

“But we recognise that these extended school closures have had a huge impact on children’s learning which will take more than a year to make up. So we will work with parents, teachers, and schools to develop a long-term plan to make sure pupils have the chance to make up their learning over the course of this Parliament.”

Reopening schools had to be about far more than the physical measures put in place, Jodie Hassan, the head teacher of St Edward’s Church of England Academy, Romford, said on Wednesday.

The borough of Havering, in which Romford is sited, along with Barking and Dagenham, had the highest death rate in London at one point, but there has been no transmission of the infection on the school site, and very few cases. The return of 93.1 per cent of pupils in September had been a sign of the confidence that parents placed in the school, Mrs Hassan said.

“Communities have to trust us to do all we can. If they can’t believe what is said to them, no one will feel confident. Obviously, physical safety is the prerequisite of our concern. We have to be sure that we are safe, and a great deal has been done to achieve that. It would be easy to point out the health-and-safety measures that would make us feel safe to return. Testing, track-and-trace, and vaccination would all feature.

“But these only hit the surface of the problem. You can tick a box to say you’ve done the risk assessment, and you’re standing two metres apart, but, if school leaders don’t do enough to consider the well-being of their students and staff, you’ve just got an empty shell, and that’s not what we’re here for.

“Our fear is not only for the immediate but also for the long-term and yet unseen damage to emotional and spiritual health. It’s our responsibility as a church school to try and fill the gaps caused by the two national school closures.”

Without staff being vaccinated, there would be continued high risks in the classrooms, she acknowledged. But the range of practical measures at St Edward’s is illustrative of what a school will need to do. Mask-wearing has been mandatory there since September for students. The school, part of the Unity Schools Partnership Multi-Academy Trust, has now requested medical-grade masks for the staff, to add an extra layer of protection and to enable them to feel mentally and emotionally safer.

A mass-testing site is already set up, with the capacity to test 300 staff and students a day. Ventilation is maintained throughout the building: windows and doors are permanently opened. Students will continue to be taught in year bubbles with staff travelling between classrooms. A staggered start and end to the school day will be maintained, along with split lunches.

Extra cleaners are on site. All the outdoor seating areas and spaces have been cordoned off for individual year groups. All staff, who have been supplied with PPE, have their own workspace and a socially distanced computer in response to the loss of their personal teaching classroom. A virtual staffroom has been created.

“But we also have to look for the devastating gap that has appeared in human contact,” Mrs Hassan said. “As a church school, it’s incumbent upon us to do that, and, without it, we are never going to be back to normal. We can keep everyone physically safe, but, in 20 years’ time, the damage isn’t going to be about physical Covid for these children, because the vast majority of them are not going to be physically affected by it.”

“There is a looming mental-health catastrophe. We can see it in the number of children our safeguarding team have to support, who are just sitting in a room with no contact. There is a worry about suicide and self-harm because the concentration has been on not physically spreading the virus.”

The school has maintained its full curriculum from day one of the lockdown: every lesson has been live with a teacher. A full pastoral and spiritual programme includes assemblies and tutor time: things considered essential in maintaining normality for the students.

The whole of the PHSE curriculum has been redesigned to focus on mental health, and students are now taught coping structures such as mindfulness and meditation. Messages of thanks and support come from the children to the staff via the Share My Homework online platform.

“We’re trying our best to look after the staff, giving them a sense of value and appreciation, and we must continue to do that when they return to the site,” Mrs Hassan concluded.

“Looking ahead to a time when the school reopens, the strong focus on the pastoral well-being of students and staff is going to continue. ‘Life in all its fullness’ is at the heart of every decision we make in response to this pandemic.”

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