The change in government guidance, handing over responsibility for Covid-19 contact tracing to external NHS Test and Trace from the stroke of midnight earlier today, is at best a double-edged sword.
The tracking and tracing process is exhausting, and has been fraught with increasing frustration and pushback from parents and carers, who have nowhere else to vent – so that challenge will not be missed.
For those schools that have already broken up for the summer, it is also a welcome reprieve to allow shattered staff to be able to rest without taking on the burden of notifications, calls and having to be the messenger telling communities that they must self-isolate for the first 10 days of their longed-for break.
For those of us not yet finished with term and yet to break for the summer, it is not just problematic, it lacks sense and thought. To have our final week subject to wholesale change in our risk assessments, at a time of exploding positive cases in both staff and pupils – more than I have known throughout the pandemic – represents abject failure to grasp the realities on the ground.
Covid in schools: Why the latest DfE guidance is so damaging
For so many of our staff and families who are classed as clinically extremely vulnerable or who live with loved ones who are, the idea of placing the onus on to self-identification is one anxiety too far.
Couple that with the farce of “freedom day”, which sees our national leaders either testing positive for Covid-19 or self-isolating because they are close contacts (and under pressure to comply), along with social media awash with pictures of nightclubs that put paid to any sense of a populace acting with extreme caution. Now is not the time for yet more failed mixed messages.
The vast majority of leaders still in school this week are maintaining their risk assessments and continuing as they have been, in order to try to make some sense of this week. Yet the backlash of a small minority of parents against schools is causing real pain and grief. So, too, is the weight of responsibility on these school leaders who feel its crushing pressure.
A colleague from a different part of the country contacted me over the weekend to say that they wanted to keep their established risk-assessment and contact-tracing protocols in place for the last few days of term, and asked their local authority to support them. The local authority pushed back and said it was purely at the headteacher’s discretion, while their union told them that they should not act without the explicit support of their local authority.
This leader was understandably bereft and broken by this quandary. To put leaders in such an invidious position at the end of what has been a brutal and battering time is not just wrong – it is cruel. The sword of Damocles feels precariously close right now.
Subject to policy whims that are not grounded in reality
We cannot be subject to such policy whims that are not grounded in reality or any semblance of common sense. Remember just eight weeks ago when the debate was focusing on whether we would be extending the summer term to facilitate catch up?
Looking back at that from this point in time, the idea is patently ridiculous, as an entire sector now either limps towards the finish line or licks their wounds from having done so.
We will all do what we have done throughout: our very best for the children and communities we serve and the colleagues within our care. The stress of this, however, must not be dismissed, and it feels like for some this may be the straw that breaks not just the camel’s back but also their hope, resolve and continuing service.
Neither must the stress be forgotten. We must, as a sector, demand better from our leaders in government if we are to do the absolute best for our schools on the ground – as we all, hopefully, begin to emerge from the nightmare firefighting of this pandemic.
When that informed and welcomed policy, guidance and headspace comes, that will be our real freedom day.
What will the rest of this week bring? The only certainty is yet more difficult decisions, yet more positive cases and yet more pain for those around us.
We have deserved so much better throughout this whole crisis. For those still pushing to get through the end of term, this is the most appalling of situations.
Dan Morrow is CEO and trust leader for Dartmoor Multi-Academy Trust