When the pandemic hits

Nationally and locally, the impact of the pandemic has really ramped up since half term. From September, we have seen isolated cases, in both staff and students, resulting in self-isolations for contained “bubbles” of students across the first term. Since we have been back, the situation has felt very different.

Latest case figures for North Somerset from the BBC tracker (source)

Cases in November in Years 8, 9 and 10 have meant over 600 students from Churchill self-isolating at home as potential contacts. This picture is reflected in the national school attendance figures release this week:

  • Attendance in state-funded schools steadily increased from 87% in early September, to a period of stability of between 89 to 90% from 1 October to 15 October.  After half-term attendance was at 89% on 5 November but decreased to 86% on 12 November.
  • On 12 November, attendance in state-funded secondary schools is 83%, down from 87%. The drop in attendance is mainly due to the increased number of pupils self-isolating due to potential contact with a case of coronavirus. (source)

Everyone has been disrupted. Two of my three children have been sent home from their school this month to self-isolate due to positive cases in their year group bubbles. I really do understand it from both sides, as a parent and a Headteacher. I understand the frustrations. I understand the inconvenience. I understand the upset. I understand the anxiety.

None of us want to be in this position: we all wish it was different. But wishing won’t change the reality of education in the middle of a pandemic.

What happens when a case is notified?

In school, notification of a positive case launches a very clear but complex process:

  1. Contact the family: make sure we have all the correct information about dates, symptoms, test results, transport arrangements, attendance, and any social contacts.
  2. Run the contact tracing: we have a report in our Management Information System that pulls out all the students that are “contacts” with a named individual. We cross-refer this report with the student timetable and, if necessary, seating plans to identify students that need to self isolate. We also identify any staff contacts of the confirmed case to check social distancing, ventilation in the rooms, and any other issues.
  3. Seek advice: having run through the written guidance, I always check with the Health Protection Team that my interpretation is correct. They have been brilliant – always available with a prompt response and clear, helpful advice, including confirmation of dates and self-isolation durations.
  4. Prepare letters for the confirmed case, the identified contacts, and the wider Academy
  5. Contact parents and families of identified contacts: all other operations stop in the Academy office as every available colleague takes to the phones. If the notification comes out of hours, all available senior leaders work through the contacts from home.
  6. Organise collection: staff supervising the students use walkie-talkies to communicate with reception when individuals are ready to be collected
  7. Formal notifications: it’s my responsibility to notify the South West Health Protection Team, Department for Education, the local authority, school transport (if applicable), the Trust Board and the wider staff. These notifications never include personal details of the case – only that we have a confirmed case, the year group, the date of the test, and the number of contacts required to self-isolate.
  8. Follow up: often students who have not come up on our contact tracing self-identify that they have spent time with a confirmed case at lunch or break time. We check the circumstances of these contacts, and provide advice accordingly. At other times, the Health Protection Team want a follow-up discussion to check responses and offer support. There are sometimes further details to clarify, or further contacts to identify.
  9. Implement remote or blended learning: staff need to re-plan their teaching to accommodate full or part-classes learning remotely at home. Webcams, visualisers and other tools are used to provide live or recorded video content; Google Classrooms need to be updated with lesson content or learning tasks. We need to check staff absences or isolations, and ensure that any cover work is adapted to work remotely.
  10. Welfare checks: tutors begin the process of “touching base” with self-isolating students, addressing any issues with remote learning, health or wellbeing. These checks take place by phone or email, at least once a week during self-isolation.

This is our new reality. At any time, with one positive test, the whole process kicks into action. The ramifications spread far beyond the Academy, to all those families who have to drop everything to come and collect their children, reorganising schedules and arrangements at a moment’s notice.

It has to be this way. If we are going to protect the vulnerable, relieve the pressure on the NHS, and slow the spread of this virus, we have to take immediate action to isolate any potential contacts of a confirmed case. But the disruption is massive – and it’s not just happening at Churchill. Every single secondary school in our area has isolated large groups of students this term. And the South West – although cases are rising – is not the worst-hit region. In Hull last week, one in four children was at home self-isolating.

What can we do?

There has been much talk about implementing rota systems in schools, so that year groups only attend for two weeks at a time with two weeks off. This was proposed by the government back in August, and at Churchill we have a contingency plan for this eventuality if it is called for. But I can’t see that this will fix things: if a positive case is confirmed in a year group bubble that is on the rota to be in school, they will have to go home to self-isolate anyway. What then?

Year 7 under the canopy this week

To my mind, schools should stay open. For this to be sustainable, we have to protect ourselves as much as we can. We must rigorously stick to the covid-safe protocols in school, and the protective measures and restrictions in wider society. And, when a positive case is confirmed, we have to isolate the case and any possible contacts to prevent further spread. Until a vaccine is in wider circulation, this is our new reality.

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