Head’s Blog: The Covid Marathon

This is the sixth term of living with Covid in schools.  We had all hoped for a sprint, or even a middle distance run, but it has turned into a marathon. Marathons are gruelling, particularly when you haven’t trained for them, but we are learning as we go and are now much wiser for our experiences. So what have we learned?

Covid will linger longest in schools.

As I write, only 15% of 12-15 year olds in England have received one dose of a Covid vaccine and no vaccine is currently authorised in the UK for use with children under 12. As such, with a largely unvaccinated population, schools are vulnerable to Covid outbreaks and whilst we are all working hard on our hands, space, face, ventilation mitigations, these are only partially effective against the infectious Delta variant. It must also be recognised that even with the best will in the world and frequent reminders, children won’t always remember to wash their hands, keep their distance, and wear masks correctly. So until immunity increases in children, it seems inevitable that Covid will disrupt education and schools could become reservoirs for Covid which then spreads back into the community

As Covid continues in schools, so does the disruption to teaching and learning.

From three to 18, we currently have around 100 children self-isolating for 10 days following a positive test. That is potentially 1,000 days of compromised learning, for whilst absent pupils can dial in remotely to in-school lessons on Teams, such experiences can never be as good as being in class. Microphones can’t pick up the full extent of class discussions, whilst creative work in art and music, and practical work in the sciences and technology require access to specialist facilities and equipment that often won’t exist at home. I think the Department for Education has been premature in setting the 2022 public exam grading distributions at a less generous level than 2021. The class of 2021 experienced five terms of Covid disruption to their education, the class of 2022 are already on six terms and counting, with further disruption likely over the next months. Current Year 11 and Upper Sixth students will wonder why, given the extra disruption, they are being graded more harshly than their immediate predecessors.

Disruption in schools equals disruption in the wider economy and society.

Self-isolating children often need parental supervision at home, so a self-isolating child can translate to an absent employee. For frontline NHS staff, positive household cases lead to enforced absences from the workplace, which means fewer medical staff to treat patients and immunise children (the School Aged Immunisation Service is well behind its target to immunise children against Covid and flu). Disruption in schools means disruption in already strained healthcare settings and disruption in already wobbly supply chains. The knock-on consequences for the economy and society could be significant.

In schools there has been a loss of learning, but there has also been a loss in pastoral care and extra-curricular opportunities.

Much of the debate about Covid disruption in education has focused on lost teaching and learning time. However, the disruption is wider than just academic impacts. Children have missed out on in-school pastoral support, and this, together with anxieties arising from uncertainties about their futures (exams, university etc) and isolation from friends and normal school routines, has led to a significant increase in child mental health and wellbeing concerns. Children have also been denied extra-curricular opportunities in sport, music, drama, outdoor pursuits and other clubs and activities where pupils learn essential inter and intra-personal skills and have fun. The personal development and wellbeing of children have been compromised.

The Covid marathon has created challenges for all sectors of society and there are no easy answers to some very tough questions.

The virus is not going away and we will have to co-exist with it. Co-existence will take different forms depending on the risks that specific parts of society face. Because the risks of Covid to the young are generally less, I hope that the restrictions placed on children will be commensurately lower. As well as being proportionate, I hope any measures will be carefully planned. Unfortunately this was not the case with the 2020 exam grading debacle, or the 2021 12-15 year old Covid vaccination programme which is well behind schedule. Ministers and civil servants should talk to those in schools who have been running the Covid marathon for six terms. Our practical advice could help transform good government intentions into real world progress.


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