LONDON – Evelyn Forde hoped January would bring some relief.
As principal of Copthall School in north London, she spent the final weeks of 2021 dealing with severe staff shortages as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus began to spread across the city. But on Tuesday, as the girls-only high school reopened, 13 of 120 teachers were absent.
A day later, another teacher tested positive.
“We were just hanging on to the high cost of living and just thinking, ‘Everything will be fine when we come back in January,’” Ms. Forde said, “only for the variant to spread like wildfire.”
Such scenes were repeated across London last week amid a record rise in coronavirus infections, even as the government refrained from imposing a nationwide lockdown, choosing instead to ‘ride’ the wave.
The math in London, as in the rest of England and much of the United States, appears to be the same. Many parents, politicians and school administrators are desperate to keep schools open after two years of chaotic openings and closings. But the variant raises questions about those hopes, at least in the short term.
In England, concerns about staff are serious enough that retirees – often older and therefore more vulnerable to serious illnesses from the coronavirus – have been asked to return to work. Schools have been urged to merge classes to fill staffing gaps. And in a country that has long resisted the kinds of precautions taken in countries like Germany, high schools are now required to test all their students twice a week, adding to the strain on smaller enrollments.
Even then, some parents wonder if the students should be back, given they fear inadequate precautions and promised changes to ventilation systems that they say are both insufficient and too late.
But in England, unlike the United States, the national government can enact the rules for all public schools, and although teachers’ unions continue to voice concerns about the lack of protections, they have generally complied. Parents also have no choice but to move forward; they can be fined for keeping their children at home because of Covid concerns.
In some ways, the final days of uncertainty look like a repeat of last January, when another wave of coronavirus closed schools for weeks after they opened for a single day. Still, there’s more hope this time around that Omicron’s seemingly milder variant won’t wreak the same havoc and that schools can get by with just a few changes.
And for many, all the risks are outweighed by indications that children have not only fallen behind in school, but that many have suffered from devastating mental health issues as well.
Beyond the new testing requirements, the government is now forcing high school students to wear masks not only in hallways, but in classrooms as well. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi also pledged to start distributing ventilation systems to thousands of schools and to increase funding to help pay replacement teachers.
Yet the challenges are clear.
Education staff were more likely than other workers to test positive for the coronavirus at the end of last year and must self-isolate, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics, and in London, many schools had struggled to make it to vacations amid staff absences.
Since many schools reopened last week, more than a third of the roughly 2,000 schools surveyed in England had 10 percent of their staff absent on the first day, according to a survey by NAHT, the school leaders union. And 37% of schools surveyed said they were unable to find enough substitute teachers to replace those who were sick.
Most schools only had two days to implement the new government guidelines before students started to return to school, leading many to stagger their return to allow all of their testing to be done. students.
The unions representing most education workers in England have called for additional government support. Their demands include ventilation systems for all of the nearly 25,000 schools – far more than the 8,000 promised – more people to help with tests and more money to pay replacements.
“Schools and colleges alone cannot reduce the threat posed by the virus and they need the Westminster government more than rhetoric about the importance of education,” the organizations said in a statement. last week.
Philippe Sibelly, an art teacher at a small international school in central London, said the school had to close two days earlier for the holidays due to frequent absences from staff and students.
When school resumed on Tuesday, Mr Sibelly said there had been no staff absences, pointing out that most teachers contracted Covid last month or during the Christmas holidays. But now many students are sick or isolating themselves at home after testing positive.
In previous waves of the pandemic, the school had gone beyond government recommended measures, remaining closed to in-person teaching for a longer period and installing better ventilation systems. But Mr Sibelly said those decisions were often pushed back by some parents.
“Anyway from the start of Covid, whatever we do, well we can’t win because it’s a very polarizing issue,” he said, while adding that most of the parents seemed to be agree with the current approach.
Some educators hope the worst may be behind them. Nick Soar, executive director of the Harris Federation of Schools, which oversees two private schools in central and north London, said they had drawn closer to the holidays with many staff and student absences.
He thanked the school staff for making heroic efforts to keep the school open, including having some teachers who had been exposed to the virus or had asymptomatic cases to teach lessons remotely from their homes. in classrooms complete with a supervising adult.
But, he said, it looks like things have taken a turn, with tests so far having only revealed a handful of cases and far fewer absences than in December.
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“It feels like the ghost of Christmas Covid is gone, even though our fingers crossed,” Mr Soar said. “We have learned that if we come together we cannot overreact and make sure that quality teaching and exciting teaching takes place, even if everything else around you may seem to fall apart. “
Public health experts, however, have warned that the full impact of social mixing during the holidays has yet to be seen.
That – and what they see as a haphazard government approach – is enough to add to some parents’ concerns in the event of a pandemic.
Kirsten Minshall, who lives in the south-east of England, questioned the government’s reactive approach and last-minute testing guidelines which meant that some schools, including her children’s, suddenly delayed openings, posing challenges for working parents.
“It feels like nothing is ever put in place adequately to deal with what is going on right now,” he said. He pointed out that a year after schools opened and closed in one day, leaders across the country are still having the same conversations about masking, ventilation and distancing in schools, when better precautions already could have be put in place.
Now he fears it will be only a matter of time before a family member catches the virus.
“We have this shock of a desire for everything to be as it always has been, compared to the new reality,” he said.
Chaela Cooper, whose children attend school in the south-east of England, said she was also frustrated and scared. She would like to see mandatory masks at all ages since most children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated, as well as better ventilation systems.
“If we are to live with this virus, we have to mitigate it,” she said. “Otherwise, what you’re actually saying is living with death and disease. “