Sunderland schools hopeful of normal return in January but headteachers reveal Covid contingency plans “should the worst happen”
As children break-up for the Christmas holidays, a number of the city’s secondary schools are taking preemptive measures to ensure all children have access to learning in January in light of escalating Covid cases caused by the emergence of the new omicron variant.
While there’s currently no directive for schools to return to remote learning at the start of the spring term, and education leaders are hopeful that schools will open as planned, a number of the city’s headteachers are proactively putting measures in place to mitigate any potential closures by ensuring all children have computer access.
Several schools have also informed the Echo they will be having a staggered start to next term to allow time for pupils to be tested before returning to classrooms.
One school at the forefront of mitigating any possible scenario is Hetton Secondary School whose headteacher, Craig Knowles, took the decision to close the school at 3pm on Thursday (December 16) – a day earlier than planned - due to “a spike in reported student cases of Covid and the number of students either awaiting PCR results or off with symptoms”.
Looking ahead to next term, Mr Knowles added: “We are using Tuesday January 4 as a testing day for all students. After testing, Year 11 will be in school for the afternoon. For this day, after completing their lateral flow tests, Years 7 to 10 have been set work online using the Microsoft Teams platform we put in place in September.
"This means that we have been working with this system in and out of school for months, so in the unlikely event that we go into another lockdown, our students already have what they need to access the live lessons their teachers will provide.
"We keep a contingency of devices to supply students in an emergency but have already given out over 150 devices for student use where they had no access to a device for home learning.
"In addition, we now have an e-library of over 2000 books students can access on any device, as we know that literacy levels struggled during previous lockdowns.
“We hope our contingency plans won't be necessary, but the important thing is that we balance the need to protect those most vulnerable, both in terms of their health and their education.”
A number of schools have also directed staff to take their laptops home in case of a delayed start to the year.
In statements sent to the Echo, Castleview Enterprise Academy Principal, Jo Owens said: “At present, we are awaiting any further guidance around a period of remote learning as the current figures of Covid cases are a huge concern. Staff are taking laptops home, just in case, and student ones have already been allocated.
"We will have a slightly staggered start to ensure each year group can be tested before they return, but all pupils will be back in school by Thursday January 6.”
David Airey, headteacher at The Venerable Bede Church of England Academy in Ryhope, added: “I personally don’t think schools will be closed in January, but we will be ready to act swiftly in any circumstance so that the education of our pupils continues.
"Naturally, myself and the senior team will be monitoring school communications for any Government announcements which come directly to us. We can contact parents, even if the school building is closed, to share any updates with them which will impact their families.
"We have made sure that all pupils and families have access to a device which they can connect to the internet with. We have a robust learning platform which pupils can access from the school website.
"We are now well set up, and well-practiced, at implementing live lessons online through the "Microsoft Teams" platform and staff will be in the position to deliver live lessons immediately if the worst-case scenario happens.”
Mr Airey confirmed there were no plans to stagger the start of term, but that asymptomatic testing would be carried out and that pupils were already in class and year group bubbles to keep them “as safe as possible”.
Schools are being proactive with contingency plans following the situation in January of this year (2021) when the Government initially insisted schools would be open as usual while the largest teaching union, the NEU, advised members not to go to work if they felt unsafe.
It’s a scenario which led to staffing issues and many of the country’s schools taking their own decision not to reopen to all but key-worker and vulnerable children following the Christmas break - something which Boris Johnson officially announced when addressing the nation on January 4 at the onset of lockdown.
It was a situation which left many schools having to frantically convert to remote learning at short notice – a scenario headteachers, pupils and parents don’t want to see repeated.
Anxieties will only have been heightened after the Welsh Education minister, Jeremy Miles, this week wrote to schools telling them to have “robust plans in place to move to remote learning if required”.
Sunderland City Council have stressed they currently expect schools to open as normal but are ready to act should circumstances change.
Cabinet Member for Education, Cllr Louise Farthing, said: “As they have done throughout the pandemic, schools in Sunderland are continuing to follow guidance and all the necessary restrictions.
“At present, and in line with guidance, there are no plans to switch to remote learning and it’s expected that schools will re-open as planned for the new term next month.
“Should this change, we’ll all continue to work together and support our students, staff and families.”
Secondary age pupils (10 to 14) in Sunderland are the current demographic with the highest prevalence of Covid, with a recorded rate on December 11 of 584.6 cases per 100,000 people.
The latest Government data shows that 236,000 pupils were out of school for Covid-related reasons on December 9.