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Cambridgeshire secondary schools told to stagger return in January



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Secondary schools have been told students in non-exam years will have to work from home in the first week of term in January.

In a bid to curb an explosion of Covid-19 infections after the Christmas holidays, schools have been informed that while exam-year students will go back to school as normal after the Christmas holidays, most other secondary school pupils will start the term online.

And in last-minute government guidance dropped on schools at the end of term, a mass coronavirus testing regime is being set up for all pupils in time for the January term.

Cambridgeshire Council Council has been asked to comment on how testing and home-schooling would be set up in time for the start of next term. A spokesperson said they were still working through the guidance and could not comment yet.

Teaching unions have warned that starting coronavirus testing at schools without extra staff is unworkable.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said targeted testing would clamp down on the virus as students returned from the Christmas break (House of Commons/PA) (43624934)
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said targeted testing would clamp down on the virus as students returned from the Christmas break (House of Commons/PA) (43624934)

Niamh Sweeney, a teacher at Long Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, who is a representative for the National Education Union, said: “Education staff should not be carrying out tests. We’ve got stuff to do...you know, like prepare for the exams they refuse to cancel.

“Schools and colleges are being asked to train volunteers! The BMJ said the test results become less valid if they are carried out by non-medical staff...where do we get the time and space to do this? It’s bonkers.

“At least they’ve moved on from ‘children don’t get it...children don’t transmit’ but this should be a public health exercise. Cases are too high for this approach to work.”

Schools have been given a 30-minute training video and told by the government that volunteers and agency staff will be needed to carry out the tests.

Children in nursery and primary school will go back to class as normal in January, alongside students in exam years, key workers’ children and vulnerable pupils in secondary schools and colleges.

Guidance says all specialist settings and alternative provision should plan for full-time on-site provision for all pupils from the start of term.

But the Department for Education (DfE) has said secondary schools and colleges will offer remote education to all other students during the first week.

Face-to-face education for all students will resume on January 11.

In a written ministerial statement, education secretary Gavin Williamson said schools will be allowed to use an extra inset day on January 4 to prepare for the testing of pupils and staff at the start of the spring term.

Mr Williamson said: “This targeted testing round will clamp down on the virus as students return from the Christmas break and help stop the spread of Covid-19 in the wider community.”

He added: “Schools and colleges that opt in will need to provide a few members of staff to support the testing programme.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson answers questions in the House of Commons, London, following the announcement that most A-level and GCSE exams in England will be delayed by three weeks next year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: PA/House of Commons (43625548)
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson answers questions in the House of Commons, London, following the announcement that most A-level and GCSE exams in England will be delayed by three weeks next year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: PA/House of Commons (43625548)

Education leaders nationwide have also expressed concern about the logistics of setting up a mass testing programme and they have criticised the government for making a last-minute announcement at the end of term.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The government is asking secondary school leaders to contact, train and deploy an army of volunteers to administer testing to the whole of England’s secondary school population. Armed with a 30-minute training video they are being asked to administer tests to adolescents – who may have their own views about what is quite an invasive procedure. Parents will be required to give their consent to their children being tested. They will have to be contacted – in itself, a huge task.

“The presence of Year 11 and 13 pupils on the school site at the same time as the testing arrangements and procedures are being put in place will be extremely problematic. It is highly likely that these pupils will return from their Christmas holiday with higher levels of Covid-19 infection. Those who test positive will be required to isolate, which involves a huge amount of school staff taking the time to contact parents and to trace close contacts. Yet again government ministers fail to understand the fundamental issues involved, and the effort and time it takes to operate Covid security procedures in schools.

“All of these problems are compounded by the findings of the BMJ that half of positive cases are missed if the tests are not done by trained medical personnel. Governors and parents have an important role to play in children and young people’s education. The majority of them, however, have no medical training. However well intentioned, they will not be able to identify and isolate a significant proportion of Covid cases amongst the secondary school age population – many will be asymptomatic.

She added: “This announcement follows a long and ignoble tradition by this government of treating school leaders with contempt. Trust is completely broken. This government has finally put a seal on an exodus of education professionals in 2021.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “By dropping this on schools minutes before the end of term, leaders are left with no time to implement government’s instructions.”

He added: “Primary schools appear to have been completely ignored in this announcement. School staff and parents of younger children are rightly worried about transmission of the virus over Christmas and will struggle to understand why they are being treated differently.

“Once again, an announcement that, if properly planned and executed could have been positive, is poised to fail.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We are very concerned about the feasibility of setting up a testing programme at the scale envisaged.

“We welcome the limited support we understand will be available, but this is a huge exercise requiring processes to be established and communicated, parental permission to be obtained, and doubtless innumerable other logistical issues to be overcome.”

Secondary school pupils have among the highest infection rates, but early findings from a study suggest that the proportion of pupils and teachers with Covid-19 mirrors the proportion in the local community.

According to Cambridgeshire County Council, in the week commencing December 7 a total of 125 staff and 1,785 pupils were self-isolating as a result of these cases, with 200 staff and 2,565 pupils self-isolating in Peterborough.

Additional reporting: PA News

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