LONDON — Evelyn Forde hoped that January would bring some relief.
She was Copthall School’s Head Teacher in north London. She spent 2021 dealing with staff shortages and the Omicron variant coronavirus that was ravaging the city. However, thirteen of the 120 teachers who were employed at the all-girls secondary school closed their doors Tuesday as they reopened.
A second teacher was positive the next day.
“We were just hanging on for dear life and just thinking, ‘It’s going to be fine when we come back in January,’” Ms. Forde said, “only for the variant to kind of just spread like wildfire.”
Such scenes were repeated across London last week amid a record surge in coronavirus infections, even as the government has held back from imposing a national lockdown, choosing instead to “ride out” the wave.
As in much of the United States and London, the calculus seems to be the exact same. After two years of chaos and closing schools, many parents, politicians and school administrators want to keep them open. However, the variant raises questions about these hopes, at least for the short term.
In England, worries about staffing are dire enough that retirees — often older and therefore more vulnerable to severe illness from the coronavirus — have been urged to return to duty. Schools were advised to combine classes to fill staffing gaps. And in a country that has long resisted the types of precautions taken in countries like Germany, secondary schools are now required to test all their students twice a week — adding to the burden of smaller staffs.
Some parents aren’t convinced that students should return, citing inadequate precautions and promises of changes to ventilation systems.
But in England, unlike in the United States, the national government can decree the rules for all public schools, and although teachers’ unions continue to voice concerns about a lack of protections, they have generally been compliant. Parents are also forced to comply with the rules. They can be fined if they keep their children away from home because of Covid concerns.
In some ways, these days of uncertainty remind us of January last year, when another coronavirus virus, driven by the Alpha variant caused school closures for weeks. Schools had only been open for a day. There is still hope that this time the Omicron variant, although milder, won’t cause the same havoc as last January and that schools will be able to fend for themselves with a few modifications.
For many, the risks are outweighed in the evidence that many children fell behind in school and many also had serious mental health issues.
In addition to the new testing requirements for secondary school students, the government now requires them to wear masks in hallways and in classes. Nadhim Zahawi, education secretary, also promised to distribute ventilation systems to thousands more schools and to increase funding for substitute teachers.
Nevertheless, the challenges remain.
According to statistics from the Office of National Statistics, education staff were more likely to be positive for the coronavirus than other workers and had to isolate. In London, many schools struggled to make it to the holidays due to staff absences.
Since many schools reopened last week, more than a third of about 2,000 schools surveyed in England had 10 percent of their staff absent on the first day back, according to a poll by NAHT, the school leaders’ union. 37% of schools polled stated that they couldn’t find enough substitute teachers to replace those who were sick.
The new guidance was implemented in two days for most schools. Students were then allowed to return to school. Many schools decided to stagger their return to allow them to test their entire student body.
The majority of education staff in England are represented by trade unions. They have asked for more government support. Their demands include ventilation systems for all of the nearly 25,000 schools — a far greater number than the 8,000 pledged — more people to help with tests and more money to pay for substitutes.
“Schools and colleges cannot on their own reduce the threat posed by the virus and they need from the Westminster government more than rhetoric about the importance of education,” the organizations said in a statement last week.
Philippe Sibelly was an art teacher at a small school in central London that had to close two days before the holidays due to student and staff absences.
Mr. Sibelly claimed that school was back in session on Tuesday. He pointed out that most teachers had contracted Covid during the Christmas holidays and last month. Many students are now sick or isolated at home because they have tested positive.
The school went beyond what was recommended by the government during earlier pandemic waves. They closed their doors to in-person teaching for longer periods of time and installed better ventilation systems. However, Mr. Sibelly claimed that parents often resisted such decisions.
“From the beginning of Covid anyway, whatever we do, well, we can’t win because it’s a very polarizing issue,” he said, though he added that most parents seemed to be onboard with the current approach.
Some educators believe that the worst is behind them. Nick Soar, executive principal of Harris Federation of Schools, oversees two state-funded schools located in central and northern London. He said that they had struggled to get to the holidays due to many student and staff absences.
He praised school staff for making heroic efforts in keeping the school open. He mentioned that teachers who had been exposed or had asymptomatic cases of the virus were able to deliver classes remotely from their homes, allowing them to fill full classrooms with a supervising adult.
He said that things seem to have improved. Testing so far has revealed only a few cases and far fewer absents than December.
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“It feels like the ghost of Christmas Covid has gone, even though we are crossing our fingers,” Mr. Soar stated. “We’ve learned if we pull together, we cannot overreact, and make sure that great teaching and exciting teaching takes place, even while everything else around you might seem to be falling apart.”
However, public health experts caution that it is too early to assess the full impact of social mixing during holidays.
That — and what they consider a haphazard government approach — is enough to add to some parents’ pandemic worries.
Kirsten Minshall, who lives in southeast England, questioned the government’s reactive approach and the last-minute testing guidance that meant some schools, including his children’s, suddenly delayed openings, posing challenges for working parents.
“It doesn’t feel like really anything is ever adequately put in place to deal with what is happening at the moment,” he said. He pointed out that a full year after schools opened and shut in one day, the country’s leaders are still having the same conversations about masking, ventilation and distancing in schools, when better precautions could have already been put in place.
He fears that it will only be a matter of time until someone in his family gets the virus.
“We have this clash of a desire for everything to be as it always had been, versus the new reality,” he said.
Chaela Cooper, whose children attend school in the southeast of England said that she is frustrated and scared as well. She would like to see mandatory masking for all ages, since children under 12 are not yet able receive vaccinations.
“If we have to live with this virus, we have to mitigate for it,” she said. “Otherwise what you are actually saying is live with death and illness.”
Source: NY Times