South Tyneside education chief stresses staff are “working hard” to keep returning teachers and students “as safe as possible”

As children returned to classrooms following the Christmas holiday, South Tyneside Council has stressed all school and Public Health staff are “working hard” to keep pupils safe and ensure schools remain open.

With the latest Government data showing South Tyneside’s Covid Case rate at 1,490.7 per 100,000 people – nearly double the rate on Christmas Day – the Borough’s secondary schools have been conducting student and staff lateral flow tests to limit the spread of Covid as pupils and teachers return to classrooms.

Lead Member for Children, Young People and Families, Councillor Adam Ellison, said: “Headteachers, leadership teams and Public Health staff are working hard to implement Government guidance in a bid to keep students and staff as safe as possible. Secondary schools in the Borough are staggering pupils returning to the classroom to allow testing to take place.

"Secondary school pupils will also now be required to wear a face mask in classrooms in line with national Government guidance.”

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The Government have pledged to provide 7,000 air purifiers to schools across the country to help alleviate the problem of inadequate ventilation during the winter months. Despite this only scraping the surface of around 300,000 classrooms, the Council has also been proactive in putting measures in place to improve ventilation.

Cllr Ellison added: “All schools have completed a risk assessment which highlights the need for good ventilation. CO2 monitors have been provided to all state-funded education settings which enable staff to quickly identify where ventilation needs to be improved and schools are encouraged to open doors or windows in poorly ventilated areas.

"This is more effective than using an air cleaning and filtration unit.”

Cllr Adam Ellison, Lead Member for Children, Young People and Families, said schools and Public Health staff are "working hard" to keep teachers and students as safe as possible.

Despite their best efforts, Cllr Ellison conceded the rapid escalation in the spread of Omicron was already having an impact on staffing levels.

He said: "Primary schools are already seeing staff absences due to Covid and other winter illness. All schools reported difficulties in securing supply staff last term. Individual schools will consider the best way forward to support business continuity.

“We recognise that our young people learn far more effectively in the classroom and are committed to doing all we can to keep them there. We appreciate the continued support of families with regular testing. We would encourage pupils who feel unwell to stay at home, get a PCR test as quickly as possible and isolate if asked to do so.

"We would also encourage young people to get vaccinated. First doses of the vaccine will be offered in schools over the next couple of weeks for 12 to 15-year-olds who missed the first opportunity. Second doses will be offered to those not yet accessed in the community via the national booking system."

The North East National Executive for the country's largest teaching union, John Hall, is doubtful that all schools will be able to remain open due to staffing issues caused by rising Covid rates.

Despite all of these measures, John Hall, the North East National Executive for the NASUWT the country’s largest teaching union, feels there will inevitably be disruption to our region’s schools.

He said: “With the level of infections in the community there will be disruption. Will all schools remain fully open – I doubt it. The Government expect education to flow normally but there will inevitably be a pinch point at which staffing in schools will reach a critical level at which education will need to return to some form of remote learning with students possibly attending on a rota basis for face to face teaching.”

The Government has directed all Public Services to prepare emergency measures to cater for staff absence rates of up to 25 per cent. To help alleviate anticipated absences, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has called for recently retired teachers to return to classrooms.

Mr Hall said: “To be honest, I think this is a nonsense. Aside from the logistical problems, why would teachers who have generally retired from the profession for good reason want to return to a situation like this?

"Whether bringing back retired teachers or hiring supply staff – if there are enough supply teachers out there - there is also the issue of how schools fund these additional costs. The Government said at the start of the pandemic they would put the resources in place, but there’s no additional funding to cover these costs.

"The Education Secretary has also proposed the merging of classes but we would argue that if a school is having to do this then it has already reached crisis point.”

To help mitigate the spread of Covid, the Government has also reintroduced the wearing of face masks in classrooms.

Mr Hall added: “I don’t understand why face coverings were removed so quickly and back in September I said to the region’s school leaders not to be too hasty to get rid of control measures as there was always the possibility this could happen.

"I would have thought politicians would have the foresight to see this and to be prepared. I do feel more could have done to reduce communal transmission before children returned to school.”

Responding to the situation a Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Schools are working tirelessly to ensure classrooms are safe for face-to-face learning, because together we want to help keep young people in the classroom.

“We are helping conduct mass testing, bringing in supply staff and increasing ventilation support with CO2 monitors and air purifiers, while there will be no Ofsted inspections while testing is happening.

"Combined with the hard work of schools and teachers, we are confident that our measures will maximise classroom time for students.”

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