Sunderland school leaders reveal staffing pressures of rising Covid absence rates

“We are coping but the biggest problem is the uncertainty” – that’s the view of Deputy Head Teacher at Southmoor Academy, Sammy Wright, as schools come under increasing pressure from Covid related absences.

Friday, 14th January 2022, 4:58 pm

Mr Wright was speaking to the Echo as teaching unions have raised concerns about the capacity of schools to cope with rocketing Covid related absence rates.

He said: “You just don’t know what each morning is going to bring and whether there’s a ping on your phone to say someone else is out. Staff are remaining positive but we do have quite a heavy staff absence and teachers are having cover lessons they wouldn’t normally have to.”

The most recently published Government data estimates that 8.6 per cent of teachers and school leaders were absent from open schools on January 6 while the rate for teaching assistants and other staff was 8.9 per cent.

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Mr Wright added: “I would say that’s fairly close to where we are but a raw figure doesn’t really give you the full picture. Obviously having a classroom teacher absent is going to have a different impact than a member of the admin team.

"It can be quite difficult to get supply staff in to cover, but fortunately last term we had the foresight to arrange our own supply staff and a number of those are now working in the school.”

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It’s a situation which has already led to some schools in South Tyneside having to send pupils home.

Southmoor Academy Deputy Headteacher ,Sammy Wright, has said the school is coping with the current levels of staff absence but the biggest problem is the "uncertainty each morning brings".

Mr Wright said: “We are not at breaking point yet. If as a school we continue to see this level of absence then we will eventually wear out our resources but case rates appear to be coming down and I’m hopeful we are starting to travel in the right direction.

"The decision to reduce isolation to five days will also be of benefit to schools.”

Like many schools, Southmoor staggered the return of children to enable pupils to take lateral flow tests before returning to classrooms.

Mr Wright added: “We were pleasantly surprised by just how few cases we had. It was low and less than we expected.”

Seaburn Dene Primary School headteacher John Howe has been taking on caretaker duties to help avert a staffing crisis due to rising levels of absence. Picture by FRANK REID.

Despite remaining positive, the Deputy Head Teacher is concerned about the longterm impact of the pandemic on teachers.

He said: “There’s no doubt a level of deep exhaustion is setting in. I spoke to a colleague this week and she said she feels like a a different person to two years ago. We’ve had to change how we do things so much and it has taken its toll.”

The new term has also seen the reintroduction of face masks in classrooms, something which Mr Wright believes the pupils understand and have reacted to positively.

He said: “I’m in charge of pastoral care at the school and we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reaction of the students to the reintroduction of masks. We’ve had some pupils who may have forgotten masks but we’ve not had one incident where a student has just refused to wear one.

"We do have spare masks which we can provide if a student does forget.”

To minimise potential transmission, the school has a policy of opening windows where possible to provide ventilation and has installed CO2 monitors in all classrooms to monitor the quality of airflow.

They have also requested some of the 7,000 air purification units which the Government has said will be available for schools, although with over 20,000 schools and 300,000 classrooms nationally, it remains to be seen whether their bid will be successful.

If students do at any point have to work from home then the school has a contingency plan in place in which “all children would have access to a suitable digital device” and staff and pupils could “very quickly return to remote learning”.

Issues of staff absence are also being experienced at our city’s primary schools with Seaburn Dene Primary School headteacher John Howe currently taking on a number of roles in the absence of colleagues.

He said: “With the caretaker off, I’m currently opening up and closing school and putting out the bins. With several teachers absent I’m also covering lessons. Unlike secondary schools we don’t have the additional capacity to cover internally but fortunately we have been able to get in supply teachers who know the school.

"We are all having to be flexible in what we do and the curriculum we deliver. There are a number of schools in a similar position where we are all having to wear different hats.”

Mr Howe is also concerned about the “rising number of children having to self-isolate”.

He said: “We have a significant number of children out of school and some have had to return to remote learning. We will only know the impact on their education when they return to school.

"However, I’m optimistic that things will get better – you have to be when you are working with children. Our priority at the moment is to remain open for face-to-face teaching.”

Both schools’ situation coping in the face of adversity and remaining open appears, at present, to be replicated across the city.

A statement from Together for Children Sunderland, which works on behalf of Sunderland City Council to deliver Children's Services, stated: “As expected, schools are finding some challenges with staff and pupil absences due to Covid-19. However, schools are managing absences on an individual basis and all schools remain open as usual.

"We haven’t been informed of any closures or groups being sent home, but this information would be for individual schools and academies to share directly with parents. As always, our schools are working hard to ensure that there is minimal disruption to learning for children and young people in the city.”

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