Covid chaos in our schools is being ignored because it’s largely a northern problem, say education leaders in Greater Manchester.
Positive cases are once again having a huge impact on schools across the region, with youngsters sent home to learn remotely because their bubbles have burst.
Now school leaders say immediate action is needed to stop large groups of children missing out on more face-to-face action.
In Oldham, one of the nine Greater Manchester boroughs now following the same path as Bolton, where cases peaked before half term, more than 3,000 children and 210 staff are now isolating – with 84 out of 100 schools now affected in some way. Less than a week ago, those figures were 1,330 and 71 respectively – a clear indication of just how quickly the problem is escalating.
Gerard Jones, Oldham council’s managing director of children and young people, says that while it was always going to be the inevitable result of more testing in schools, it doesn’t mean we should sit back and accept what’s happening to thousands of youngsters across the region.
“What we’re doing is testing children who are asymptomatic to then isolate other children who are asymptomatic who are then going home to other people who are either asymptomatic or have been vaccinated in a community where hospital admission rates are now very low,” he said.
“Children have missed an awful lot of their education and if this carries on with this rate of progression, a lot of children will miss the final few weeks of the summer term and that’s going to have a big impact – not just in Oldham but across Greater Manchester.”
Both Mr Jones and Glyn Potts, headteacher of Newman RC College in Oldham, where a third of pupils are now isolating, say the government needs to stop ignoring what’s happening in the north and take action now.
They want the Department for Education to give schools greater flexibility on dealing with the cases – letting them opt in for daily testing as a means of keeping close contacts on site instead of having to isolate.
It’s something that only a small number of schools have been allowed to do as part of a clinical trial. Whether it will eventually be extended to all schools will depend on the results of that trial, but it doesn’t finish until the end of June.
By the time results are analysed and any decision is made, leaders in Greater Manchester fear pupils here will have already lost out on what’s left of the school year.
“It feels like the disruption faced by our communities is accepted as we have been here before and it isn’t replicated elsewhere in the country,” said Mr Potts. “Once again Greater Manchester is not being properly heard because other areas are largely unaffected.”
With around 500 children from six different bubbles now isolating from his 1,500-pupil school, along with 14 staff members, he says the daily testing would have kept many of them in school.
“Parents are understandably livid about children being sent home again,” said Mr Potts. “Daily testing would obviously be a challenge for us, but it would be a necessary evil if it meant keeping pupils and staff on site.”
Mr Jones, who says the pandemic has hit places like Oldham ‘for longer and deeper than other areas’, says there seems to be ‘no urgency from the government’ despite us ‘getting to the point of a crisis’.
“It looks different from Westminster, but actually in Greater Manchester and in the north west, children have missed so much education,” he said.
“Unless we do something very soon this will get away from us and we won’t have enough staff left for schools to even stay open.
“They need to give us local flexibility to do daily contact testing to keep children and staff in school rather than send them home.
“It’s going to be onerous on the schools, but I’m sure our schools and colleges would support us in finding a way to keep the kids in school. We have got to do things differently, it can’t keep going on the way it is.”
Not only are they worried about losing the remainder of this academic year, but also that there’s no firm plan for what will happen in September.
“In areas where people are unaffected they seem to think ‘oh it’s only this half term, just get it out of the way and then it’ll be fine’, but our kids have already lost enough of their education and we can’t just write the next five weeks off,” said Mr Potts.
“Also, what happens in September? Will they be wearing masks? Will we be doing tests? Will young people be vaccinated? Unless we have a proper plan – a proper roadmap for schools – then we’re going to face another year with more difficulties.”
Only last week we reported how the NEU said the Delta variant, also known as the Indian variant, is ‘out of control’ in Greater Manchester’s schools.
Peter Middleman, the union’s north west regional secretary, described the situation – with 87 schools affected by cases – as ‘gallingly reminiscent of the December-January period’ when schools saw huge disruption before eventually closing for another period of remote learning.
A Government spokesperson said: “Schools across the country continue to have robust protective measures in place, including regular weekly testing to break chains of transmission and keeping pupils in smaller group bubbles.
“We are also taking additional measures in areas where there is a high prevalence of the delta variant, including increasing the availability of testing for staff, pupils and families and working with Directors of Public Health to reduce local transmission.”
He said the daily contact testing is currently being trialled in a small percentage of secondary schools and colleges.
When it finishes at the end of June, ‘the findings will be considered to inform any future use’.
He said guidance for schools from September will be provided ‘in due course’ and whether or not children will be vaccinated will depend on advice from the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
Has your school had a positive Covid test this half term? Would you prefer for close contact pupils to be tested daily rather than sent home?
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