Enabling schools in Britain to return full-time for the new academic year has taken a capital effort from all involved, and it has not come without disputes between worried parents, teachers unions and the government, who have been keen for schools to be made Covid secure to allow pupils to return.
Managing schools through this monumental task when safety guidance was so susceptible to change was no mean feat, and the CEO of one academy trust, the Bridge Academy Trust which consists of eight schools in Essex, decided to take the approach of shouldering responsibility himself and taking some matters out of the hands of school headteachers.
In a candid interview with the Leaders Council’s Scott Challinor, Bridge Academy Trust CEO Mark Farmer said: “We like to be in control of what it is we are doing. Throughout this whole pandemic there have been too many unknowns and we have to accept there will be more unknowns with the return of pupils.
“I have eight inspirational school leaders at all of my schools, and my issue has been that I have had to maintain their confidence and throughout this process of readying schools to return, I have taken decisions out of their hands, shouldered responsibility myself and told them that ‘it’s okay, we as a trust have made a decision on your behalf about what we are going to do, and as long as you operate within guidelines you have been set, any responsibility will fall upon me.’”
By showing such leadership, Farmer believed that much of the burden of preparing to operate under new procedures was removed from headteachers, allowing them to concentrate on leading their staff, communities and children with fuller confidence and to allow their provision of education to be the best it can be.
Farmer explained: “The wellbeing of our school leaders, staff, children and communities is the hardest thing to manage, and I had to take the steps that I took to retain the confidence, wellbeing and energy of those school leaders and the other 4000 or so stakeholders that we work with.”
While the Covid-19 pandemic has posed a significant challenge to the education sector as a whole, Farmer believes that there are some key aspects that his trust of schools has been able to take away as positives.
“One silver lining to all of this has been a renewed sense of collaboration. We have had a real one organisation mentality across all eight schools. All school leaders have come together as one. A second plus point is the work that all of our teachers and tutors have put in, in their pastoral care roles with children and families. We can build on that going back to school under this new normal, in that our children’s wellbeing is being thought of and will continue to be so.
“Thirdly, we have been thinking throughout the lockdown of new and innovative ways to use technology to enhance our education provision and keep it going, including remote provision, as well as use of Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other technology. It won’t take over fully how we work, but we envision that it will be part of what we do in future. Covid-19 is an awful thing, but it reminds us that we are always learning. It does not matter if you are a child, just finishing your A-Levels, or whether you are a headteacher or CEO, we are always learning new things and adapting. We have to teach our children that it is not just about qualifications, it is about how adaptable and flexible you are within the wider world to be able to succeed.”
Meanwhile, a major research project to help track Covid-19 infections in schools is being piloted in Bristol.
It is hoped that the study will help better understand how pupils can transmit the virus and determine whether or not they are likely to develop symptoms themselves.
4,000 saliva samples from pupils and 1,000 staff samples from schools across the city will go to the University of Bristol for analysis once a month for six months.
The study should also help provide more clarity on how schools can deal with Covid-19 outbreaks, after some schools were forced to send groups of pupils home to self-isolate after positive tests were returned.
It comes amid news that the government’s measure of the R rate has risen to between one and 1.2, suggesting that infections are on the rise in the UK.
A study of thousands of people across England found cases to be doubling every seven to eight days, with sharp rises occurring among young people, particularly in the north of the country.
It has prompted the government to bring in new restrictions limiting social gatherings to six people. Schools are among those exempt from the new law.
Experts say that children are less susceptible to infection and that they generally suffer milder symptoms, but more knowledge is required about the role they may play in transmission, asymptomatic or otherwise.
Professor Caroline Relton, an epidemiologist at the University of Bristol, said: "The main thrust of the study is to understand the rates of infections and to jump on them very quickly, so we're giving heads the tools to spot infections early and to keep their schools open, and so permit the continuity of education."
The study’s findings will also be forwarded onto schools and the NHS Test and Trace scheme to help better map out infections across the local area.
Researchers will work in tandem with schools on attendance data, seating plans and school timetables to help introduce the proper measures for when outbreaks occur.
Elsewhere, Imperial College will investigate the number of confirmed cases in schools, in the hope of ascertaining whether the virus is transmitted by children who are both symptomatic and asymptomatic, or just one or the other or not at all.
It will also explore possible means of transmission both within school and within households where pupils live.