Parents fear school closure after Christmas
- Credit: PA/Archant
Parents say schools must reopen in January so children are able to thrive - amid fears the Omicron variant could impact on their return after Christmas.
This highly-transmissible Covid variant that was first detected in South Africa is expected to become the dominant one, with health officials warning it is "probably the most significant threat since the start of the pandemic".
While there are suggestions Omicron is causing milder illness, the government moved to Plan B - including work from home if you can - over fears a huge wave of infections could cause enough illness to overwhelm the NHS.
Some schools in Suffolk, including Abbots Green Academy and Sybil Andrews Academy in Bury St Edmunds, have already closed before the end of term due to Covid concerns.
Alex Burghart, a junior education minister, said today the government was committed to ensuring schools open in January as normal, adding their plans include on-site lateral flow testing for secondary school pupils when they return, continued regular testing at home and a framework for managing outbreaks.
We asked parents whether they felt schools should reopen in January after the Christmas break or there should be a move to home learning.
'The damage done is horrifying'
Klaire Peck is founder of Suffolk Baby Bank charity, which collects items like clothes and toys for families in need.
Mrs Peck, a mother-of-six aged from eight to 20, said schools must "absolutely" reopen in January, adding: "The damage done to the children's mental health, education and social skills throughout this ordeal is horrifying."
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She spoke of the negative impact lockdowns had had on her own children's mental health, and fears, if we go back there, the damage to young people would be "irreparable".
"Even if 10% of households in Suffolk have suffered or even one child, that's a reason why schools should stay open," she said.
Lack of access to laptops and tablets for home learning has also been a huge issue for some families, said Mrs Peck, a student midwife.
She is also concerned about children falling through the safeguarding net when schools are shut.
'I can't give the same support as a teacher'
Kelly Sadler, a mum to two primary school children, said schools should stay open as it's "so important for everyone’s mental health".
She said: "Kids thrive in a school environment - I definitely can’t give my children the same support as what a teacher would.
"I’ve found Sebert Wood [Primary School in Bury St Edmunds] has handled things really well during Covid issues too."
'We need to get on with life'
A Suffolk parent, who is also a teacher, said schools should "definitely" stay open - but with restrictions including mask wearing in corridors, for students and adults in secondaries, and year group bubbles.
The parent, who asked to remain anonymous, said studies have shown Omicron is more transmissible, but the effects make you less ill than the others.
"We aren’t going to find a way to stop Covid; it’s here with us now so we need to live with it.
"It will still spread in schools but it will still spread everywhere else. Concerts, sporting events etc are still on, public transport is being used, people are going to work, the shops, socialising…so school shouldn’t stop."
They added: "Parents need to work and can’t if schools are closed."
They also felt the roll-out of the vaccination programme was another reason schools should stay open.
'Time off, more often'
Samantha Taylor, from Sudbury, who has two children at secondary school, one in college and one in nursery, said: "The holidays need to be split up more evenly. Time off more often, to help break the cycle.
"Split up the summer break over the year. Then hopefully children won’t be missing as much school."
She said children were missing too much time off school even when they are open, especially this time of year, due to symptoms.
"Something needs to be done," she said.
Graham White, press officer for Suffolk National Education Union (NEU), said schools needed to remain open, but it would be a "recipe for disaster" if they reopened in January without extra precautions against Covid in place.
He suggested different year groups being in school at different times, as well as face coverings and observing two-metre social distancing.
He added: "The best way forward is to reduce the number of pupils in school at any one time."
He said staff were "really concerned" about getting Covid, adding you could still get the virus even if you have been vaccinated, but less badly.
'We hope a significant phased return doesn't prove necessary'
Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said, as the Omicron situation is evolving, it was difficult to say exactly what may or may not happen over the next few weeks.
He said: "As ever, schools and colleges will be guided by the scientific evidence and the resulting government guidance about the protective measures which will be needed next term.
“There is no discussion at this stage about a significant phased return of all pupils over a period of time after the Christmas holidays and we very much hope that this does not prove necessary given the severe disruption to education that has already taken place over the past 20 months."
Mr Barton, a former headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, said secondary schools had already been asked by the government to carry out on-site asymptomatic testing of returning pupils in January, which may require schools to stagger the return of pupils over a few days to accommodate the logistics.
Samuel Ward Academy in Haverhill is having a slight staggered return due to testing, with some year groups being welcomed back to lessons on January 5 and the others on January 6.
Mr Barton urged the government to provide schools with "significantly" more support in organising and administering these tests, to launch a public information campaign to encourage twice-weekly testing at home among eligible pupils and to provide schools with significantly more support in terms of ventilation equipment.
“We would emphasise the importance also of the government communicating any new plans and measures to schools and colleges promptly and clearly,” he said.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We are incredibly grateful to teachers and all education staff for their efforts to keep young people in face-to-face education.
"We know children and young people want to be in the classroom and it is the very best place for their education and wellbeing.
“In response to rising cases and the Omicron variant we have asked older students and staff to wear face coverings in communal areas, and the education secretary has written to all education staff to explain what we’re doing to support the workforce, boost supply teacher capacity, and keep children in school.
“We strongly encourage students, staff and families to keep testing regularly and get their booster jab – or second jab if they are 12-15 - as soon as possible.”