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Cambridgeshire schools braced for a ‘rocky’ start to the year

Parents have been warned to expect a potentially rocky start to the term as schools reopen amid record numbers of Covid-19 cases in Cambridgeshire.

Should secondary pupils be asked to wear masks in class? (54161851)
Should secondary pupils be asked to wear masks in class? (54161851)

The county’s education boss has said it is critical for schools to stay open to enable key workers to go to work, but says safeguarding will come first and a school will be closed “at the drop of a hat” if needed.

“We need children in schools and getting their education on track is what we’re here to do,” Jonathan Lewis told the Cambridge Independent. “Education is a critical part now. If we can’t keep schools going, the health system is going to struggle because people will have to stay at home and care for their children, but also getting those children back to where they need to be and catching up on all their learning – that’s a long-term thing.

“The next half term is going to be probably the most critical part of what’s going on with Covid, how schools respond and whether we keep education going.”

Health bosses in Cambridgeshire remain wary of the impact of pupils returning to school on top of the festive mixing and are braced for further disruption on admittances and on staffing numbers. Hundreds have been off sick or isolating at Cambridge University Hospitals, as we report inside.

Staffing remains the biggest concern for schools, with staff absences placing the largest pressures on their ability to stay open. This is especially true for special schools, where more staff are required.

Despite the temporary reintroduction of face coverings in classrooms for secondary students to reduce the spread of the Omicron variant, teachers will not have to wear them under the new guidelines.

Mr Lewis continued: “Obviously there is concern around Omicron and how that’s going to spread.

“The change in the isolation period is helpful but has created some anxiety over whether it is safe for them to return.”

The government has called on retired teachers to return and has announced funding for schools struggling with staffing.

Mr Lewis said this becomes available to schools when they have 20 per cent of staff absent but he warned that 10 per cent would be considered a critical situation in Cambridgeshire.

Latest data from the December peak saw an average of 7.5 per cent absences across the county, with 6.4 per cent in Cambridge, 7.7 per cent in East Cambridgeshire, and 7.5 per cent in South Cambridgeshire.

Cambridgeshire schools braced for a ‘rocky’ start to the year
Cambridgeshire schools braced for a ‘rocky’ start to the year

Mr Lewis said: “Where a school has a concern with either a heightened case for Covid or staff absences, we’re having conversations with them. The last resort is sending children home and we’ve had to do it on some occasions over the last half term. If we can avoid it, we will, but we’ve got make sure it’s safe. Safeguarding comes first, and we’ll close a school at the drop of hat if we need to. But we’re trying to avoid that at all costs.”

Mr Lewis said schools were doing their “very best” adding: “Education leaders have been brilliant and headteachers have been phenomenal in getting ready for the new term.”

He also praised the “phenomenal” staff across the education sector, who have been flexible and taken on extra work where needed.

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi announced on Sunday that the government would be temporarily recommending that face coverings are worn in classrooms and teaching spaces for students in year 7 or above in light of the Omicron variant surge. The decision is due for review on January 26.

It also said it would be making 7,000 air cleaning units available to early years settings, schools and colleges. There are more than 24,400 schools in England.

Cambridgeshire teachers have previously described their opposition to the return of masks because of their impact on the quality of education.

Mr Lewis said: “This is a good mitigation but there are costs with it. The quality of education is impacted. Interestingly, the guidance says the teacher shouldn’t wear face coverings in the classroom. It’s just the pupils. But obviously if a member of staff feels anxious, they should wear one. But it’s only a temporary measure. If it means schools being open rather than closing then I think we’ve got to accept that’s what we need to do because I think that’s a better outcome than school being closed.”

While there was no specific guidance for primary schools from the government, Mr Lewis said measures such as ‘ring-fencing classes’ – like bubbles, but more localised – and staggered start and finish times are options available to headteachers, along with additional testing and close contact tracing.

He said: “For a class that has a particularly high number of cases then we keep that class away from communal areas and serve them at different times.”

Almost 1,900 cases of Covid were reported in Cambridgeshire’s schools leading up to the Christmas holidays, with data covering the week commencing December 6 revealing there were 1,884 across 312 settings. This was an increase on the 1,443 cases across 283 education settings for the week commencing November 29 which followed a huge increase on the 888 cases across 197 settings in the previous week.

Cambridgeshire schools braced for a ‘rocky’ start to the year
Cambridgeshire schools braced for a ‘rocky’ start to the year

The four main teaching unions covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland – ASCL, NAHT, NEU and NASUWT – plus the GMB and Unison have issued a joint statement calling for urgent steps to help schools.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Finally, the government have been forced to recognise, and react to, the scale of the Omicron variant and its potential impact on education. The recommendation on wearing face masks in secondary school classrooms is overdue – but it should be a requirement. Seven thousand more air purifiers is something, but it is completely inadequate for what should be a basic human right, the provision of clean air in every classroom in every educational setting.”

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