Fears Covid in schools will cancel teachers' Christmas

Warning of 'mass disobedience' from schools not allowed to close early, as concerns grow that their Covid infections will stop family Christmases

John Roberts

Concerns are growing that teachers and pupils will not be able to see family at Christmas.

Headteachers are warning that pupils and teachers could end up being asked to self-isolate over Christmas because of Covid infection rates in schools.

Bolton headteacher Patrick Ottley-O'Connor told Tes that between 300 and 450 students a week had been isolating at his school because of contact with coronavirus cases since the October half term and there was no sign of this pattern changing.

And Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has revealed that this is a concern among his union's members.

He is warning of "mass disobedience" from schools following the government's "big stick" approach to suggestions that some might close early for Christmas.

Mr Barton says this Whitehall "muscle-flexing" has been "delivered without any apparent understanding of the bleak reality of what is actually happening in schools".  

Meanwhile, it has been reported that another school in the North of England is holding a survey among its parents about closing a week early over Christmas.

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The Department for Education has already stepped in to prevent a multi-academy trust from ending its term early because of Covid concerns.

Mr Ottley-O'Connor, the interim head of Westhoughton High School, raised his concerns in a social media post responding to a Tes article by Mr Barton

Mr Ottley-O' Connor said: "Our staff and students are showing great resilience and working hard but there’s a real possibility that I’ll be telling students during the final week of term that they’ll have to self isolate for 14 days over the Christmas break. 

"We’ve currently got 452 out of 1,350 students self-isolating." 

The Twitter post shows that his school in Bolton has all of Year 11 self-isolating, along with a group in Year 8 and another three groups in Year 9.

Speaking to Tes, he said: "We were relatively unscathed up until the October half term but since then every week we have had between 300 and 450 pupils self-isolating at a time and I don't see any sign of that changing.

"Some of our Year 11 pupils have been out of school on three occasions so they have not been in for more than 30 of the 55 days of term so far."

In his Tes article, Mr Barton wrote that one ASCL member had said: "We will almost certainly be telling some families that their child needs to isolate for 14 days, and this will include Christmas. The really interesting thing is whether families will adhere to that – I suspect some will not, and so we will have infections spreading wider as a consequence.”

The Department for Education intervened to prevent other schools in the North of England from closing early over Covid concerns.

Focus Trust, which runs 15 primaries in the North West and West Yorkshire, has planned to finish a week early to safeguard pupils and staff and "protect precious family time together" in the Christmas holidays after pupils and staff had to self isolate in 87 per cent of its schools because of contact with the virus.

However, the DfE intervened and told the multi-academy trust's leaders during a meeting on a Sunday night that it had the legal power to direct the trust to remain open.

Focus Trust then backed down and said that academies have no freedoms when it comes to decisions on Covid.

Mr Ottley- O'Connor said: "We are not taking any options off the table.

"We will make sure we speak to the local authority and Public Health England and have in mind what the government is saying about the rules as we move into these new tier restrictions."  

He added: "One issue we have had is that in Years 7,8 and 9 pupils are being taught in their forms, so when we have had to send a bubble home it has been a class of 30. But in Years 10 and 11 they have their subject options, so it has involved sending more pupils home.

"One thing we are looking at is whether in the last week of term we move to teaching the older year groups in their forms as well."

He told Tes that working through the coronavirus pandemic had been tiring but was also a "privilege" to lead a school staff "who were making a phenomenal difference to children's lives".

The question of when to close for Christmas is becoming a pressing issue in schools.

According to a report in the Hull Daily Mail, the Headlands School, in Bridlington, has sent a survey to parents that asks them if they want to see the school close for 2020 on Thursday 10 December.

Sarah Bone, the school's headteacher, has reportedly told parents she is concerned that a bubble closure after this date will see pupils and staff having to self isolate on Christmas Day – meaning they would not be able to take advantage of the relaxed restrictions to meet family over the festive period.

However, the government said last week that there is no need for schools to close early for Christmas.

In a press release issued yesterday, the Department for Education  said: "There remain no plans for schools to close early for Christmas, to extend the holidays or to implement rota systems."

And the prime minister's plan for tackling Covid over the coming months has also said that schools should not close early.

The winter plan published by the Cabinet Office last week said: "Nurseries, schools and colleges should not change their Christmas holidays or close early this term.

"Parents should continue to send their children to school during term time and students should continue to attend college right up until the end of term – our senior clinicians continue to advise that the best place for children and young people is in education.

"A time-limited change to social restrictions over Christmas does not require any children to be taken out of school prematurely. The leaders and staff of education settings have been doing an extraordinary job to remain open, keep settings safe and provide education."

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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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