Teaching union rep fears Covid school closures "inevitable" while Sunderland education chief lambasts "crazy" Government policy

The Sunderland branch secretary of the the country’s largest teaching union has said it’s “inevitable” some schools will not be able to remain fully open in the coming weeks and is already aware of schools which are close to closure.

Wednesday, 5th January 2022, 1:52 pm

In the week children returned from their Christmas holiday, the latest Covid case rates in the city have rocketed to 1,402.9 cases per 100,000 people, almost double the rate on Boxing Day.

The scale of the situation has left NASUWT Sunderland Secretary Brian Wilson “really concerned” about the feasibility of schools reaming open.

The former Maths teacher said: “I’m due to meet the city’s Director of Education later this week to look at levels of staff absence but I think it’s inevitable in the next couple of weeks we will see children working from home due to the rate which Omicron is spreading.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“Following the first round of testing I’m already aware of a number of schools across the city which are under pressure to remain open due to the number of staff who’ve tested positive.”

Read More

Read More
Secondary schools to provide on-site lateral flow tests ahead of new term

As part of the Government’s Covid contingency plan, public services have been told to prepare emergency measures to deal with up to 25 per cent staff absence rates.

Mr Wilson added: “I used to compile the cover list at my old school and if we had staff absence rates of 25 per cent then we would have to close all or part of the school. It’s not just teachers to consider but also catering staff to provide food and also maintenance staff to ensure a safe environment.

The Sunderland representative of the country's largest teaching union, Brian Wilson, is already aware of some of the city's schools which are struggling to remain open to due to high levels of staff absence.

"There’s a real shortage of supply staff and in the coming weeks I can’t see any other option than some schools having to close or partially close and return to a hybrid model to prioritise exam classes.

"With the level of disruption we are likely to experience in the coming months, is it fair to expose these children to final exams? If this situation needs to change then we need to know early to give everyone time to prepare.”

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has called for recently retired teachers to return to classrooms to help alleviate absences.

However Mr Wilson said: “I’m one of those retired teachers and I won’t be returning. Most teachers have left the profession for a good reason and will tend to be of an age which leaves them vulnerable to Covid.

Sunderland City Council's Cabinet Member for Education, Cllr Louise Farthing, is concerned about the implications of high Covid rates on staffing levels in our city's schools.

"As a union, our understanding is that very few retired teachers are coming forward.”

Many of the union’s concerns are shared by the city’s Cabinet Member for Education, Cllr Louise Farthing, who described the Government’s decision not to implement further restrictions to control infection rates as “crazy”

She said: “The whole scenario is just unbelievable and I can’t believe the Government just continued with what appeared to be a care free attitude over the festive period. This is undoubtedly going to lead to high levels of pupil and staff absence which schools are going to have to deal with and I’m obviously concerned.

"We are waiting to see the extent of the problems but there’s no doubt schools are going to be facing difficulties with levels of infection. It’s going to leave children who are due to sit exams very disadvantaged. We have a lot of concerns, but the Government doesn’t seem to be doing very much to sort it out.”

Another contingency measure suggested by the Education Secretary to deal with staffing shortages is to merge classes.

Cllr Farthing added: “Asking schools to double up classes is not always practical.”

On the suggestion of covering absences through supply staff or retired teachers, Cllr Farthing said: “There’s no extra funding to cover these temporary staff. Schools have to run to budgets and there’s no surplus money to pay for supply teachers."

Mr Wilson added: “I know some schools who’ve already spent their supply budget in the first term and are now having to find extra money from elsewhere – and that’s if supply staff are even available.”

The Prime Minister has promised to supply 7,000 air purifiers to schools to help deal with the difficulties of inadequate ventilation during the winter months.

While the move has been welcomed, both Mr Wilson and Cllr Farthing believe it does not go anywhere near far enough to cover almost 300,000 classrooms across the country.

To mitigate the spread of Covid all of the city’s secondary schools have this week been been conducting pupil lateral flow tests with many schools operating a staggered return.

One of those schools leading the way with mitigation measures is Hetton Secondary School with Year 7 to 10 spending yesterday (January 4) working remotely on Microsoft Teams following their lateral flow tests. The school also has a stock supply of emergency laptops and an E-library of over 2,000 books should there be a necessary return to remote or hybrid learning.

Commenting at the end of last term, headteacher Craig Knowles said: “We hope our contingency plans won't be necessary, but the important thing is we balance the need to protect those most vulnerable, both in terms of their health and their education.”

Potential implications of infection levels on staffing was a concern for headteachers even before the schools broke up. In a statement to the Echo Carolyn Morgan, Chief Executive Officer at Ascent Academies' Trust which oversees Portland Academy, stated: “Difficulties in staffing will be one of the possible reasons for partial closure along with outbreaks in classes.”

Responding to the situation, a Department for Education Spokeswoman said: “Schools are working tirelessly to ensure classrooms are safe for face-to-face learning, because together we want to keep young people in the classroom.

“We are helping conduct mass testing, bringing in supply staff and increasing ventilation support with CO2 monitors and air purifiers, while there will be no Ofsted inspections while testing is happening. Combined with the hard work of schools, we are confident our measures will maximise classroom time for students.”

A message from the editor:

Support your Echo and become a subscriber today.

Enjoy unlimited access to all of our news and sport, see fewer ads, experience faster load times, test your brain with daily puzzles and get access to exclusive newsletters.

Your support for our journalism means we can continue telling Sunderland’s stories for generations to come. Click here to subscribe - and click here to get a snapshot of the Echo’s news and sport to your inbox through our email newsletters.