“Critical” for Sunderland children to return to normal education but “caution” urged
The city’s education leaders are “hopeful” that when children return to classes they will do so for good but are taking a cautious approach with Covid testing and some safety measures remaining in place.
Despite the easing of restrictions, all secondary school pupils with parental consent will be asked to take two lateral flow tests before returning to classrooms and will then be provided with testing kits to be administered at home – a procedure which is set to be reviewed at the end of September.
Schools will also continue to provide sanitising dispensers, promote good hand hygiene, carryout enhanced cleaning and ensure where possible that classrooms and communal areas are well ventilated.
Monkwearmouth Academy assistant headteacher Iain Buddle said: “We are going to have a staggered start to allow all students to be tested and allow us to pick up any infections.
"We are hoping that for the fist time since the start of the pandemic that this year will be without any closures. For some of the younger students they’ve had so much disruption they’ve forgotten what normal school routine and life is like.
"It’s critical for them to have a good period of time where they can enjoy a normal education.”
While school leaders are “optimistic” they have also produced contingency plans to respond to what has at times been an rapidly evolving situation.
Sammy Wright, deputy headteacher at Southmoor Academy, added: “We will be continuing to encourage students to test from home in line with government policy. We will also continue to have hand sanitisers in all classrooms and will initially have some separation during lunchtimes.
"We will also be ready to respond to a change in circumstances which may require the reintroduction of certain restrictions. For example last term we felt it was appropriate to bring back the wearing of masks.
"It’s hugely important that children can return to education. We know there will be an impact on transmission as schools return but we have to keep educating as the risks to young people missing out are too great.”
Although children under 12 are not required to be tested, many of the city’s primary schools will continue with safety precautions in place.
Headteacher at Seaburn Dene, John Howe, said: “Caution has been the watch-word of the last 18 months. Testing will still be in place for staff and for the first two weeks adults will wear masks in communal areas and will not be mixing at lunchtimes – we need to see if there is any reaction to schools returning.
"We also have an outbreak management plan in place where if we had an outbreak of five children in one class then we may have to go back to some of our previous restrictions for a limited period, such as bubbles and staggered starts.
"There may be some anxiety among staff, but as they have done throughout this period – even before vaccinations – they have got on with their job because of their professionalism and dedication to the children.”
With the success of the vaccination programme and wider society beginning to edge towards normality, Mr Howe is “hopeful” this will also be reflected in our city’s schools.
He added: “Schools have been massively disrupted since the start of the pandemic and children need to be able to return to uninterrupted education for both academic progress and mental well-being.
"School should be a place where children are happy and this means returning to what it was like before March 2020.”
The message of an optimistic but cautious approach has been echoed by Sunderland City Council’s Public Health Chief, Gerry Taylor, who released a public message following concerns about the impact of school returns on Covid rates.
In Scotland the recent sharp rise in Covid cases has been blamed on last month’s return of children to schools.
Ms Taylor said: "We know that being in the classroom is best for education and for overall mental and physical health, but with Covid infections still higher than we’d like them to be I know that some parents may be wondering about the measures which will be in place to keep both children and staff safe.
"As we move to a phase where we learn to live alongside the Covid virus, many of the protective measures we are all so familiar with such as hand hygiene, face coverings and keeping spaces well ventilated will continue to be important."Schools will be in touch with parents directly to explain what their children can expect when they return and with cases higher among our younger population, I would urge everyone to follow the guidance put in place by your school."Regular testing will also continue to help us find people who may be carrying the virus without knowing it. All secondary school pupils will be asked to test twice at school at the beginning of term and then asked to continue regular home testing twice a week.”
Ms Taylor also reiterated the importance of eligible children taking advantage of the opportunity get their Covid jabs.
She added: “Our best defence against Covid continues to be vaccination. Everyone 16 and over can now get vaccinated as can 12-15 year-olds if they have underlying health conditions or live with someone who is immunosuppressed.
"All of the information about how to get your vaccination is on our website and I would encourage everyone who is eligible to take up the offer.”