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Covid: warning schools face ‘challenging start’ to the new term as cases surge

Pupils across the UK will return to school this week after the Christmas break, with lateral flow testing and face masks required in secondary schools in some areas as Covid infections rise.

But as pupils and teachers prepare for the term ahead, what are some of the challenges schools face amid a surge in Covid cases?

‘Schools will face a challenging start to the new term’

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The Education Policy Institute (EPI) told NationalWorld that the number of current Covid cases and new guidance issued by the Department for Education (DfE), including testing and masks, means that “schools will face a challenging start to the new term”.

This comes as the EPI already saw “a significant increase in teacher absence rates before Christmas”, with it likely that those absences “will raise in line with transmission rates in the new year”.

The EPI said that where possible, the Government should prioritise keeping schools open, as the organisation’s research has shown “just how damaging school closures have been to pupil’s learning”.

Research from the EPI has shown by summer 2021, pupils had suffered in both their maths and reading skills, with disadvantaged pupils and those in parts of the north of England and the Midlands experiencing even greater learning losses.

However, the EPI acknowledges that in some cases, schools may have no option but to limit their in-person education offer.

In these circumstances, there may be a case for ​prioritising certain year groups and vulnerable pupils to attend school for in-person learning, said the EPI.

The EPI added: “The government must monitor staff and pupil absences closely and consider whether it should be doing more to support education recovery.

“So far the government has committed around £5bn to tackle learning loss in England, but our research has shown that around £13.5bn would be required to support pupils’ education recovery from the pandemic.”

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

"Finally, the Government has been forced to recognise, and react to, the scale of the Omicron variant and its potential impact on education.”

She added: “Given the current, sky-high rates of infection, every school will be significantly affected by Covid.”

‘We need to do everything possible to ensure face-to-face teaching continues’

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said school leaders are clear “the best place for children to learn is in school”.

He added: “We need to do everything possible to ensure face-to-face teaching continues, despite increasing infection rates due to the new variant.”

He also said the Government “will need to be realistic about its expectations of schools”.

“If the priority is to keep children in school we will need innovative approaches to delivery when staffing is critically low,” Mr Whiteman said, as he added: “There is no play book for this and school leaders need to be confident that their decisions taken in the middle of a crisis will be supported by government and Ofsted.”

The notion that the Government needs to continue to monitor and act on the impact Covid is having on schools is echoed by Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of teachers’ union NASUWT.

Dr Roach said: “Whilst the measures announced by the Education Secretary in recent days provide welcome assurance to schools and parents, the Government should also go further to minimise disruption to pupils’ education throughout the remainder of the academic year.

“The Government’s commitment to roll out air cleaning units to schools is welcome, but it needs to be more ambitious. This commitment will only see these units installed in a minority of classrooms and schools.”

Air cleaning units aim to improve ventilation in teaching spaces, and help to strike the balance between managing the transmission risk of Covid and reducing disruption to in-person learning.

He said the availability of teachers and support staff is also a “key pressure point” for schools this term as the number of Covid cases continues to increase.

“We still need to see a credible and funded plan from the Government that will deliver immediate support and flexibility for those schools experiencing teacher shortages at the very start of term,” Dr Roach said.