The Government’s “confused” message to parents on school attendance risks defeating the national aim of suppressing the virus, the leader of the NAHT warned.
Pupils in schools and colleges in England – except children of key workers and vulnerable pupils – have been told to learn remotely until mid-February due to tighter restrictions.
Department for Education (DfE) guidance says schools should not limit the number of children of key workers or vulnerable pupils on-site during lockdown, and only one parent needs to be a critical worker for their child to attend class – even if parents are working from home.
But it also says parents who are critical workers should keep their children at home “if they can”.
Breck Primary School, in Fouldrey Avenue, Poulton, told parents it needed to prioritise places due to demand, with vulnerable children; youngsters who have two key worker parents or a single key worker parent; and the children of medics, carers, and school workers at the front of the queue.
One parent questioned the move, while also raising concerns about safety measures at the outstanding-rated school, which was forced to shut its doors entirely at the weekend due to a positive case, which has left every youngster in isolation until this Friday.
The school told parents “a number of staff” breached the school’s bubbles (groups of pupils kept separate to prevent widespread outbreaks, usually split by class or year group) to “facilitate” the in-demand before and after school club, with the confirmed case meaning “children in all classes could potentially be identified as a close contact”.
“Government guidance states that staff can work across different bubbles and should, where possible, offer wraparound care provision if this can be facilitated,” the school said.
The parent, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “I believe the school will have had eight, possibly nine bubbles running on Monday and all have been told to isolate. It’s very concerning.”
Government guidance says: “The overarching principle to apply is reducing the number of contacts between children and staff. This can be achieved through keeping groups separate (in ‘bubbles’) and through maintaining the distance between individuals.
“Maintaining distinct groups or ‘bubbles’ that do not mix makes it quicker and easier in the event of a positive case to identify those who may need to self-isolate and keep that number as small as possible.”
But it adds: “All teachers and other staff can operate across different groups. Where staff need to move between groups, they should try and keep their distance from pupils and other staff as much as they can, ideally two metres from other adults.
“Again, we recognise this is not likely to be possible with younger children and teachers in primary schools can still work across groups if that is needed.”
Breck’s headteacher Cheryl Brindle said in a statement provided via the county council’s communications department: “We have had to close the school following confirmation of a positive case and advice from the DfE on those who now need to self-isolate.
“Apart from one day in October when we closed the school early before half-term in order to carry out a deep clean, this is the first time we have had to close since the pandemic began, and we have continued using the same risk assessed measures to ensure we operate as safely as possible, and within DfE guidelines, throughout.
“All children are continuing to receive their education remotely while self-isolating, and we are planning to reopen the school at the start of next week.
“Since the new lockdown came in we have aspired to accommodate all requests for places for children of key workers, however as this meant around 60 per cent of children still being in school from January 5 we have asked parents to consider whether they could help reduce the risk of the virus spreading by keeping their child at home where both parents are not critical workers, or one parent is working from home.”
Layton Primary School’s head Jonathan Clucas also urged parents not to send their children into class unless they are a “critical worker and must travel to and from a place of work” or “there is no other childcare available”.
He said in a letter: “You may have read in the newspapers or seen on the news that within this lockdown there are many more children in school. This is true for us here.
“It is vitally important that children of critical workers are able to go to work. Critical means that your role is critical to the health of others. Examples include nurses, doctors and other hospital staff critical to the Covid-19 response, supermarket workers and other essential food distribution staff, and frontline care workers and cleaners.
“However, in some year groups, numbers are high and we are at capacity.”
Mr Clucas added: “We know children work better in school, and we all want our children to be back at school learning in the right way. No headteacher wishes to refuse a child a place in school. However, the quicker we can suppress the infection rate, the sooner children will be back in the classroom.”
Speaking to The Gazette, he criticised both the Government’s handling of the pandemic and the guidance issued to schools over key workers.
He said: “The categories are too broad and the advice is contradictory.”
Having to prioritise was tough, he said, but comes as Layton’s classrooms stand 20 per cent full.
In the first lockdown, attendance there dropped to between five and 10 per cent.
“It’s a difficult decision but because the Government is not really making it we have to do it,” Mr Clucas said.
“The Government has repeatedly abdicated responsibility.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson telling MPs that children who do not have access to technology are seen as vulnerable and can attend school did not help get attendance figures down, Mr Clucas said, while describing his frustration at being unable to order 90 laptop computers from the Government for some of the younger pupils who don’t have access to school-owned iPad tablets.
But he praised his “absolutely superb” staff who are having to constantly adapt rapidly to ever-changing Government rules – and said his decision on priorities was made with children’s safety in mind: “I don’t want any children from here getting poorly with this.
“I don’t want any to take it home to their families, and I don’t want those family members passing it on to more vulnerable family members.”
Nearly half of headteachers in England have had to prioritise school places, the NAHT said, while calling on the Government to tell headteachers how many pupils on-site is “too many” as it says high pupil attendance could “seriously undermine” the impact of lockdown and risk longer closures.
Nearly three in four school leaders said demand for places has “greatly increased” compared to the lockdown in March last year, according to a survey of 4,964 school chiefs.
NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said: “In these circumstances it is understandable why quite so many parents with children at home are questioning, with some degree of frustration, why their children are being asked to stay at home when so many aren’t.”
He added: “This situation is incredibly difficult for parents. The increase in demand for places compared to the national lockdown last March is very concerning.
“It is critical that school places for the children of key workers are only used when absolutely necessary in order to reduce the numbers in school and stem the spread of the virus.”
Government guidance says vulnerable children may include “pupils who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home” due to a lack of devices or quiet space to study.
Mr Whiteman said: “The government must be clear on what it intends schools and families to do. If the national priority is to suppress the virus then it must provide schools with clear guidance so that reasonable levels of attendance can be set.”
He added: “At present, the government’s confused message to parents on school attendance risks defeating the national aim of suppressing the virus.”
The Children’s Task and Finish Group, which reports to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), published a report in December when schools were fully open to all pupils saying “accumulating evidence is consistent with increased transmission occurring amongst school children when schools are open, particularly in children of secondary school age”.
It said it was “difficult to quantify the size of this effect, and it remains difficult to quantify the level of transmission taking place specifically within schools compared to other settings”.
A separate Schools Infection Study from Public Health England (PHE), the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), also published in December, found there were similar levels of infection in schools as in the community.
Teachers and pupils from 105 primary and secondary schools were tested at the peak of the second wave in November when they did not have any coronavirus symptoms – which means they were tracked in a normal daily school environment.
The findings showed that 1.24 per cent of pupils and 1.29 per cent of staff overall tested positive for current infection – similar to the 1.2 per cent reported in the community.
A DfE spokeswoman said: “Schools are open for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. We expect schools to work with families to ensure all critical worker children are given access to a place if this is required.
“If critical workers can work from home and look after their children at the same time then they should do so, but otherwise this provision is in place to enable them to provide vital services.
“The protective measures that schools have been following throughout the autumn terms remain in place to help protect staff and students, while the national lockdown helps reduce transmission in the wider community.”
Anchorsholme Academy, in Eastpines Drive, said a number of parents had reported “some” families “fraudulently accessing critical worker places when they are either not appropriate or not needed”, but said it had “no evidence to suggest this is true and certainly do not have the resources to investigate every request”.
It added: “We have to trust parents who make requests for places. Please be aware that those children defined by the Government as vulnerable are the priority and a letter from an employer must accompany every request for a critical worker place.”
Other local schools to say they have prioritised places – or ask parents to keep children at home if they can – include Blackpool Gateway Academy, Holy Family Catholic Primary School, Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Primary School, and Stanley Primary School.
Several others shared a letter from Diane Booth, Blackpool’s director of children’s services, in which she said: “We do ask parents and carers who do fall into the category of critical workers to consider whether it is necessary for your child to attend school.
“If only one parent/carer is a critical workers, do you really need a school place?
“Some of our schools have seen significant demand for school places but they are working hard to support as many parents/carers as possible.”
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