Coronavirus: School helpline beset by lengthy waits

Head was waiting an hour and 45 minutes on DfE's coronavirus helpline for before receiving advice which he says was inadequate

How the DfE Covid helpline for schools was overwhelmed

A headteacher has called on the DfE to put more staff in the call centre for its coronavirus helpline after he was left waiting an hour and 45 minutes to receive advice about what action to take over sick pupils.

The primary head, from a town in North Yorkshire, who does not wish to be identified, said that when he eventually got through, the advice he was given to one of his questions was “concerning".

He said: “We feel a weight of responsibility to promote the keep-calm-and-carry-on message in our communities, but if we ourselves can’t the get the information it’s very hard. If we can’t get quick and clear advice how are we going to pass it on [to parents]?

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“An hour and 45 minutes is not good enough. There needs to be more people staffing in the DfE call centre. Heads need advice quickly and they need reassurance.

“There is so much on social media creating real fear about this virus – you only have to trawl Facebook – and it can very quickly become a storm.”

The head said that after spending 45 minutes this morning taking calls from concerned parents, he began his call to the helpline at number 245 in the queue. One of his questions was about whether the siblings of a child who is self-isolating should be allowed to come to school – to which he was told they should be allowed unless it was a confirmed case of coronavirus.

But he said: “I have concerns around that advice because they’re not testing for confirmed cases unless a child goes to hospital, so it could be a real case but the sibling is not being tested. It’s a Catch 22.”

The head said another head teacher in his town had spent around 50 minutes in the queue for the DfE helpline on Sunday afternoon.

And yesterday, it emerged that an academy staff member had been put on hold for an hour and 20 minutes when trying to ask what schools could do to feed disadvantaged pupils when schools close.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “A wait of one hour and 45 minutes for the DfE helpline is clearly not good enough, nor for that matter is a wait of 50 minutes.

“We are aware of this issue and are raising it with the DfE on behalf of our members. This is clearly an unprecedented situation and the volume of calls indicates the serious concerns facing school leaders. It is vital that they are able to get through to the helpline reasonably quickly.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We have doubled the number of call handlers in the past week and continue to keep resources under review to ensure we meet demand as best as possible.

In addition to the helpline, the DfE says it is sending out a daily email providing latest coronavirus guidance and information to all educational settings.

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Dave Speck

Dave Speck is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @Specktator100

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