By Urtha Felda, Senior Professional Officer Cymru/Uwch Swyddog Proffesional Cymru
Since the start of term, COVID cases have been on the rise, and concern is growing about attendance rates, staff safety and whether mitigations were relaxed too soon.
With several councils already putting schools on ‘high alert’, this meeting was arranged as a chance to hear what education unions and the TUC Cymru are doing to keep our schools safe and open, and for participants to say what would make them feel safer at work.
All Wales education unions were represented at the webinar, with 120 attendees in total.
The message was unanimous and clear – schools are stretched to their limits coping with both staff and pupil absences. Staff absences mean that people are working across groups and increasing the danger of spreading infection.
All present called for a review of the current framework, and an increased implementation of robust mitigation measures to keep schools and learners safe. A particular concern raised frequently was that children who are household contacts of positive cases were not required to self-isolate. This message will be shared with the Education Minister, Jeremy Miles.
The Welsh Government, however, given that the national alert level had changed to 0, has said that the new framework, promoting a 'business-as-usual' approach, provides proportionate guidance for schools.
Current context for schools
As of 24 September 2021, national attendance rates stood at 85% with 18,478 learners absent through COVID-19-related issues. Year 11 attendance stood at 79%.
Figures obtained from LAs across Wales revealed the following number of cases in schools:
- 768 in Swansea from 6-17 September
- 637 in Cardiff from 13-19 September
- 141 in Ceredigion from 13-17 September
- 230 in Newport from 3-17 September
- Vale of Glamorgan – 12 schools have more than 10 cases, with up to 9% of children off in one school – over 100 children.
- Carmarthenshire – an average of 40 staff a week have been absent as they had to isolate, from the start of term
- Caerphilly – 86% of schools affected by COVID-19 since start of term, some supported to close. Cases increasing. The numbers of learners and staff affected has grown steadily during last week (Monday total cases 557, Friday total cases 935).
- Schools in Cardiff, Denbigh, Swansea, RCT are at High Alert.
A comment was made that:
“The only real mitigation that currently operates in school is that symptomatic children stay home. Staff feel that this is not always being implemented, as there are children in school who are symptomatic. It is PCR tests that are required for symptomatic children and not lateral flow.”
Key asks from the joint education unions' communication with Welsh Government:
Framework and mitigations
- To review the current framework risk levels and mitigation measures to determine whether more stringent measures are needed to maintain the continuity of education e.g., grouping of learners, staggered session times, isolating contacts, mask wearing.
- Produce clear guidance on expectations for schools to support learners at home due to self-isolation or class/school closures.
- Produce clear guidance for schools on the use of CO2 monitors and produce a clear strategy on how to deal with issues of poor ventilation when they arise. This should include funding set aside to address any significant issues identified. (Extra funding was announced on 14 October and an update was given by the Minister followed by Carbon dioxide monitors in education settings guidance.)
- Removing the phrase ‘business as usual’ from the framework to reflect the situation more accurately in schools.
- To support schools in giving a consistent message to the public that does not put schools in conflict with parents.
Your views are key to the success of achieving an effective mitigation policy to keep school pupils and teachers safe. Any comments on your experience in your school would be a valued contribution to this debate and will be shared in meetings with Welsh Government. Please email your comments.
Chatbox comments from participants:
Laura Doel (NAHT):
"We all want schools to stay open, we know that's the best place for learners but we just want some help to make that happen."
"Question for those WG representatives that are here: Why are teachers being told to have face to face Parent Evening interviews - when the Welsh Labour Conference has been cancelled on the grounds of COVID safety?"
"I work in a small village school which has small classrooms. I currently teach 23 pupils with very little room to move about. Windows and doors are open but now it's getting colder, pupils want the windows shut! What can we do during the even colder winter months?"
"I am in a Special needs school in Pembrokeshire up untill this week we have been following guidlines based on mainstream schools. Some of the younger pupils have vunerable conditions and staff in some classes are more like carers. At last this week Welsh governmeny have issued guidence for SEN schools. Too little too late."
"I work in an ALN comprehensive school, we as staff have no where away from the children to eat our lunch as LFT testing on pupils is being done in our staffroom. Surely the LFT testing should be done elsewhere, for the staff to have a break."
"What is the different guidance for special schools? I suspect we are not following them? We have so many positive cases. Swansea."
"Could HEPA filters not be used in classrooms? As the weather gets colder, would it not be a good idea to invest in the filters?"
"There has been new guidance from the Deputy Chief Medical advisor stressing that children who are symptomatic have a PCR and isolate at home until they have a negative result and feel better. That is advice that has gone to ALN provisions this week."
"Our worst day was 5 staff off with Covid and we have heard nothing from TTP."
"One of my colleagues said on a Teams meeting today she has a Thematic ESTYN inspection next Thursday and had 1 week's notice as the original email did not arrive. They are coming in for a full day in person, interviewing staff and carrying out book scrutiny and learning walks. This is linked to preparation for the new curriculum. We are currently in High Risk (NPT) and she is filled will dread that she may not even have enough staff on the day of the visit and booked supply as a back up just in case. Surely this is a ridiculous expectation. We thought there would not be visits in the autumn but these thematic visits are inspections through the back door. She has had several sleepless nights. Please advise."
"Totally agree! the amount of members that have been in contact to say that lateral flow tests are not giving correct results, are huge!"
"I am a level 3 LSA who isn't employed as a cover supervisor, yet I was in charge of a class of 33 children today as my class teacher is off with covid and we couldn't get cover. I was helped by another LSA."
"We had a pupil off with Covid on the Monday and TTP did not contact any pupils as they said the pupil had the symptoms on Saturday? But the pupil was in school on the Friday. What is that all about?"
We have "a follow up inspection due to special measures next week. This week there has been a learning work by Consortia. It is chasing something two years old and bringing extra people into the school without starting to look at the stress it is causing staff."
"Our LA [Wrexham] has been very supportive and proactive, recommending that face to face meetings and Christmas performances with audiences do not take place."
"PHW figures indicate an ongoing rise in covid cases in the 0-16 years child population yet there seems to be little acceptance at LA level that transmissions are occurring within school settings, that they are community based."
"A high school of 1200 pupils has received only 2 CO2 monitors!"
"28 weeks pregnant- people are entitled to an individual risk assessment. If the risk cannot be removed you should work from home."
"We have more that 60 classrooms with only 2 CO2 monitors...."
"Whilst the written statement for special schools is a good step forward in recognizing that the situation in special schools is different it still needs further discussion in terms of when Will schools receive the CO2 Monitors?"
"TTP needs to be robust and work better."
"Would it not be a good idea for children, who has a member of their household, that has tested positive with Covid, to turn to remote learning? In the long run, this is more damaging for a class. In my experience, those children that have attended school whilst having a positive case at home, a few days later have tested positive themselves and potentially infected many more."
"Risk assessments and who will do these and the pressure of workload."
"I've arranged a meeting with Estyn tomorrow about their school visits. They seem to be oblivious about the Covid situation and the shortage of staff and Supply."
"Re Estyn you can ask them not to come in if your circumstances mean they are too difficult or unmanageable."
"I'm sure the CO2 monitors were prmoised for last week October, or first week November."
"Schools are no longer safe, never has there been so many covid cases in our local schools and only been back 4 weeks.
"Our head teacher is fabulous and does everything she can but there is only so much she can do.... With this new rule from the Welsh Assembly of not isolating close contacts or children not isolating if someone in their household has covid it is puting all the children/staff and their families at risk.. I feel there is no thought for us at all and it is as if Covid has gone , no social distancing, children can't wear masks and are not vaccinated.. Some parents are supportive but some refuse to get their children tested or keep them home, we are fighting a loosing battle.. We want to do our job but it is our right and the children's right to feel and be safe."
"We feel completely deserted and like sitting ducks just waiting to catch covid, (the ones that haven't already had it that is) This is definitely the most at risk staff/ children and their families/the community have felt."
"I feel that it Is now we are seeing a huge rise in cases in Wales or rural Wales, My daughter went into school today and came home saying that (out of 19 girls) there was only 6 girls in due to all the others tested positive within the last two days - I am just wondering where child wellbeing comes into this? My daughter has already asked to be off school due to her best friends being off - I realise this isn't a major issue and cant be helped within the school (they are trying to make it as safe as possible) My point is how do we promote wellbeing within school when we don't know what's happening next...and do we really feel safe in the schools as adults let alone children?"
"For WG representatives - why is it considered safe for up to 33 people to be in a room 6m x 7m for up to 5 hours a day? The windows and doors are open but this is hardly effective ventilation. When Covid 19 enters a classroom it is spreading, between children and staff in that room. I believe if any other workforce were in this position environmental health would be issuing improvement notices. Schools are always considered the exception to these key safety mitigation measures, purely because that is an easy option for decision makers. Unbelievably selfish decision making that does not protect school staff or pupils. There must be a commitment by WG and local authorities to keep staff safe. To me it feels the exact opposite.
"Since Covid the TAs in my school do not have a break throughout the day, we are with the children from 8.30 until 3.15 not to mention the extra responsibilities they have given us as level 2 TAs."
"Our member has raised the question where support agencies Ed Psych or SALT wont go into school because schools are too dangerous but not too dangerous for education staff. (Voice Community)
"From an Officer: When you are in an Education meeting with the Ministers, can some form of message go out to Estyn that if a school has undertaken a risk assessment under the health and Safety and Work Act that Estyn do not push to a visit where members and pupils are not safe?"
"It appears that some Head Teachers are concerned about saying no to Estyn visiting due to COVID, they should still consider virtual meeting."
"I am currently 19 weeks pregnant. At the start of term, I shared my concerns with the headteacher of my school as well as the risk assessor. I felt their response was blasé to say the least. I had to stamp my feet to get measures in place to protect me e.g. asking pupils in my classes to wear masks, putting screens around my desk, putting tape on my floor to show pupils where 2m away from me is. However, I have ended up catching COVID. I have no doubt that this is because not all pupils in my classes were willing to wear masks, the cleaning of our school is shockingly poor, and pupils are not having to go home if they are close contacts of positive cases unless they are symptomatic. I am lucky that I have not had a severe case of it. Other pregnant women will not be so fortunate. 28 weeks is too late!"
"Please note that if your comment or question is not covered during the call they are being logged and saved to be looked at and shared post meeting."
"No problem with Estyn doing virtual visits as appropriate - but Learning Walks? Seriously???"
"Had similar problems with parents not testing and saying 'It won't be Covd' when we have sent pupils home due to sickness and /or stomach ache."
"In a class that quickly escalated from one case to ten in a few days, the children became very anxious. Worries included ‘not feeling safe’, absence of so many of their friends and not knowing who was going to become poorly next."
"Pupils are getting positive cases in our SEN School in Pembs then parents are informed and some choose not to send them in. Then staff ratios are too high so staff from that class are sent to cover other classes which then can spread the virus and cross contaminate. 4 classes have closed since september. Most staff are not showing main symptoms untill 8 to 10 days so even after a negative pcr on day 2 they then return to work and possibly spread the virus."
"The timings of when being asked or taking PCR tests also seems to have an impact. late results leads to spread as 'negative' or late presentation of symptoms them leads to that staff member being in contact with other classes due to the emergency situation of short staff we find ourselves in. This needs addressing."
"I'm a TA in a reception class. We've had 2 cases in the last 2 weeks where the siblings were already at home with Covid. Myself and the teacher have had 3 pcr tests already and will have another 1 on Tuesday. We're dreading what's going to happen when they stop testing under 5s."
"POWYS LA approach has been cautious with masks in secondary, on line parents evenings etc and clear consistent communication to parents : this has been very effective and helpful as school leaders."
"CO2 monitors are only going to be worth the money if we do something about the areas of poor ventilation they identify. WG must commit to resolving the problems brought to light by the monitors, otherwise they're a £3m waste of time."
"'Business as usual' if you work in a school! this is not happening in other government environments!!!"
"I am a rep and teach secondary. I know no one who is not expected to attend assemblies ( no masks) and staff meetings. Circulation in class also strongly encouraged."
"C02 monitors are scheduled for delivery to local authorities on the 13th and 14th October, a week later than originally anticipated due to logistical issues in the supply chain."
"The LAs are very keen to protect ‘some’ workers who are working from home and encouraged to do so still, BUT school staff are expected to just carry on. The hypocrisy is unbelievable."
"A member has reported there is increased anxiety with pupils in SEN school, and this is leading to increased aggression between the pupils. This is exhausting staff."
"I couldn't agree more. I have an occupational health meeting arranged, yet this is going to happen over the phone because of COVID!"
"Business as usual does not mean TAs covering classes, teachers supporting learners in the classroom and at home at the same time and it does not include school leaders doubling up as lunchtime supervisors. We are far from business as usual. I really fear the long-term impact working at this level of stress and intensity will have on the profession."
"Our staff feel the same. We are all exhausted and feel depreciated!"
"Well said and captures the situation in special schools."
"Vunerable pupils in SEN schools who shielded in the first lockdown and are too young for vacinations or can't have them for health reason are just as vunerable now as they were then. Also most staff are double jabbed but still can infect thier own relatives and children."
"Mae angen strategaeth glir, gyflawn Cymru gyfan ar gyfer ystyried lles a iechyd meddwl holl staff a disgyblion ysgol. We need a clear strategy with a holistic, whole Wales approach to the health and well being of all staff and pupils."
"It is obvious that pupils across Wales are having a different experience depending on the location of their school, the quality of the building and the number of positive cases. Regarding wellbeing (of teachers and learners) I am concerned about the summer examinations - how are we expected to plan our lessons and prepare for external/internal assessments. Also, with so many pupils isolating, teachers are expected to prepare online lessons. There is a culture of expecting work to be presented online when learners are absent. Workload increasing with marking/feedback to written work as well as online work."
"It is demoralising to work in a crowded secondary school watching both pupils and staff contract Covid. We just wait to see who is off today, who amongst them will become particularly unwell, will it be us next? Are we going to keep talking about this situation, or is it time for action?"
"Double jabbing doesn't stop you getting Covid. We have such members who have quite ill in last few weeks."
"Until there is a wholescale review across Wales, we are only going to see things get worse! What needs to happen before more changes are introduced to protect staff? We know other public sector workers are more confident that they are safer going into work because adequate measures are in place, it should be no different for those working in schools."