OPINION: How teachers are feeling as new school term gets under way

Alex Burghart, a junior education minister, has said the government was committed to ensuring schools open in January

Face masks are back in secondary schools - Credit: PA

As we plan for the start of the spring term and the reopening of our schools, I am reminded of this time last year when we opened for just one anxious and chaotic day before the government decision to lockdown was announced.

At that stage, vaccines were not yet available so anxiety about catching the virus and facing the unknown consequences of this was extremely high.  After a day, we were immediately back into online learning and mostly working from home. 

A year on and up to three vaccinations later we are in a very different but equally challenging position with a new variant to contend with and high levels of infection.  

All of the indications are that this new variant is milder and is less likely to result in hospital admission and death but the reality is that it will be spreading fast amongst our young, unvaccinated children in primary schools just as it was starting to do in the final weeks leading up to Christmas.  

We cannot say that our vaccinated school staff are less likely to catch the virus, although we can be a little more optimistic about the outcome if they do succumb, which they likely will, working in a crowded, internal space with large numbers of unvaccinated children who may not know if they are spreading Covid. There can’t be many workers facing these circumstances and what we are asking of our school employees is more than we would ever normally consider.  

The government knows that we are going to be short staffed in schools because our staff are going to catch the virus.  Just before Christmas the Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi wrote a letter to schools thanking them for the resilience they have shown in the face of the many challenges of the last 21 months and asking us to use our own professional and personal networks to encourage ex-teachers to sign up to supply agencies and come back into schools to support the effort to keep them open.

Robert Halfon raised an urgent question in the House of Commons over a lack of support for schools asking why there wasn’t a nationwide campaign for an army of retired teachers or Ofsted inspectors being recruited to support schools in the way that the government had recruited a similar army of NHS volunteers.  

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These sentiments and suggestions were widely debated and met with a mixture of amusement and criticism in educators' social media bubbles and a feeling that once again there was a complete lack of understanding of the role of school staff, the importance of training and safe recruitment and a denial about the risks that they face.  

Ex-teachers and those who have recently retired are going to think twice before they offer to step into the breach and mix with a class of 30 children whose teacher is off with Covid, with no social distancing or masks recommended, in a classroom where the windows are permanently open, despite it being the middle of winter!    

We are not expecting an avalanche of support for schools but we are determined to keep them open.  It is school staff who have seen first hand the damaging consequences of previous lockdowns on our children’s mental, emotional and physical health let alone their academic performance.  

We anticipate being stretched, and having short periods where children may need to learn from home, but we will also be looking at creative solutions across our schools.

There are potential solutions involving technology where, If we have enough staff to safely supervise, we can keep children learning in classrooms but taught remotely and we have already had some success with this.  

As last year, we are facing an unknown situation as schools return but we are doing so with renewed hope that 2022 will bring more certainty, stability and normality into our lives.   

- Clare Flintoff is the CEO of ASSET Education, which runs a number of schools across Suffolk.

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