Schools continue to battle Covid absences but disruption less than feared

Schools continue to battle against Covid absences among pupils and staff but a wave of effort means classes have continued thanks to a wave of effort, say headteachers.

 Haadi Hockin and Danielle Westwood have been able to continue doing lessons at Shireland Hall Primary Academy in Smethwick
Haadi Hockin and Danielle Westwood have been able to continue doing lessons at Shireland Hall Primary Academy in Smethwick

With the emergency of the virulent Omicron variant plaguing the start of the new term it was feared schools may be plunged into crisis once again and be forced to shut doors.

But headteachers across the region today told how they are coping despite the challenges and have not had to take any drastic action yet due to the efforts of staff, pupils and parents.

Schools have reopened for the new term with measures in place for testing and isolating pupils with positive tests, including mask wearing and lateral flow tests.

Shireland Hall Primary Academy in Smethwick is one of many schools to have seen Covid-related absences, but vice principal Fiona Wilkes said the school had been able to prepare for it.

She said: “During the first week back, five percent of pupils and nine percent of staff have tested positive, which is lower than anticipated.

“We believe this is due to good take up on lateral flow testing, which means cases have been identified early and non-symptomatic staff and pupils have remained at home and so minimised transmission.

“We have also maintained many Covid control measures from the autumn term such as virtual assemblies and staggered lunchtimes.”

“Additionally, lateral flow tests on days six and seven of absence have also reduced the impact on learning as staff and pupils have been able to return earlier than they previously would have.”

Ms Wilkes said the school had not had to close any classes due to staff absence and had included the advance booking of two agency teachers in its plans for the new year.

She said there was still a concern about potential staff absences and the waiting period for lateral flow tests to arrive, as well as families returning from Christmas holidays abroad, but said the school was able to face the challenges.

She said: “We have not had to close any classes due to staff absence and that is thanks to the fantastic team spirit and flexibility shown by all staff members who have put the children first

“Learning and lessons have been adapted in a small number of classes with higher case numbers in order to minimise contact between children at higher risk and the rest of the school.”

Pupils have been testing across the region, although there have still been absences due to positive tests

At Beacon Hill Academy in Sedgley, headteacher Sukhjot Dhami said there had been absences of both pupils and teachers, but the first weeks had been better than expected. He said: “We have got some significant issues with learners going off because of the number of cases, with 20 in the first week and four teachers.

“However, we have contingencies in place for when we know staff and learners need to isolate because of a positive case, such as our online learning and being able to work from home. We also have part-time staff who have agreed to extend their hours and recently-retired staff who are happy to come back to cover lessons and our remote learning facility means we can still teach if year groups need to isolate.”

Stafford Grammar School’s headteacher, Lee Thomas, said: “We’ve been very fortunate in having very few members of staff absent from school.

“Unfortunately, we have had some covid-related pupil absences, but have enabled those pupils to join lessons online from home, to ensure they don’t fall behind.”

In Sandwell, a Department of Education monitoring return indicated that the school attendance rate for Sandwell on that day was 86.5 percent, with around 44 schools having one or more teachers absent due to confirmed cases. A spokeswoman for Walsall Council said: “For the week commencing the 3 January 3 the total pupil attendance was 91.2 percent.”

“This was divided by Primary schools with 92.67 percent attendance and Secondary schools with 87.99 percent attendance.

“It should be noted that secondary schools had staggered returns for pupils due to their testing program.”

A spokesman for Wolverhampton Council said: “Last week primary attendance was approximately 90 percent, which is in line with pre-Christmas attendance levels.

“It’s difficult to give a secondary figure as many schools had staggered starts because of onsite testing, with some testing different year groups on different days and those year groups only starting after they had completed their testing.”

Schools around the region such as Beacon Hill Academy in Sedgley have worked to test staff and pupils. Headteacher Sukhjot Dhami takes a lateral flow test

This comes alongside figures which show 4.9 percent of teachers and school leaders were off school due to Covid-related reasons on January 6, up from three percent on December 16.

The data also reveals that 8.9 percent of teaching assistants and other staff, around 62,000, were off on January 6, up from 7.3 percent on December 16.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Unfortunately, the number of former teachers who have returned to classrooms is a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the challenge faced.

“The latest government figures show that over 40,000 teachers were absent from the workforce in the first week of term.

“The numbers of returning teachers we have seen, whilst welcome, do not come close to solving that level of staff absence. Realistically, schools are still facing an exceptionally challenging time.”

Despite the absences across the region, many schools have managed to continue providing a good level of teaching and a reduced amount of disruption since starting up for the new term.

The absences of teachers have also led to a surge in former teachers signing up with supply agencies to tackle the staff shortage, with nearly 500 across the country signing up.

Initial data published by the Department for Education from around 10 percent of supply agencies suggests 485 former teachers have signed up.

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