Covid in schools: Greater Manchester teachers facing January return with ‘trepidation’ as absences rise

As schools across the city-region break up for Christmas, the outlook for the new term is extremely unclear.

Education staff are facing the prospect of the return to classrooms in January with “trepidation”, a leading union has warned.

The National Education Union (NEU) said the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is causing schools considerable worry as they break up for Christmas, with some places having one in four teachers not in work during December.

The union has made a list of demands of the Government to make education safer.

It comes as increasing numbers of people have been testing positive amid the spread of the more-transmissible Omicron variant.

What does the union say about the current position for schools?

Most schools across Greater Manchester are breaking up for the Christmas holidays on Friday 17 December, but the NEU says staff are already not looking forward to the prospect of returning to the classroom.

NEU North West regional secretary Peter Middleman said: “Teachers are approaching the break with some trepidation with what the situation might be by the first week of January.

Students have been having to stay at home and cope with the compromise that is online learning, while some schools have been reporting staff absences of 25%.

“It’s eerily reminiscent of this time last year when the Sunday after New Year’s Day they intended schools would open as normal and by the Monday they had announced another eight-week school lockdown.

“We think it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that might happen again.”

What does the union think the Government should do?

Mr Middleman said the NEU’s overall position had changed to trying to avoid disruption to education and the union was not looking for schools to be closed again.

However, he said the Government needed to do a lot for that to be viable in the New Year.

He said: “If schools have to close it will be the Government’s fault for not investing in ventilation as we have been urging them to do from the summer onwards.

“Technical ventilation is important. Relying on the air flow from open doors and windows is not sufficient.

Secondary school classroom

“Face coverings should be contemplated again along with the introduction of one-way systems and the management of infection. After a close contact you should remain at home until a PCR test demonstrates you’re not positive rather than coming into school until it’s proven you’re infected, and that should be open to students as well as teachers.

“We know that the new variant is more transmissible. Christmas will act as a counter-measure but kids are going to come back to school after mixing.

“We accept the scientific position that cases are going to rise throughout January, and there will be an inevitable impact in schools.”

Mr Middleman said the Government also needed to start planning now for potential disruption to exams in summer for a third academic year in a row.

What has the impact been on Greater Manchester’s schools?

The heat maps shown at Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s Covid press briefings have shown high levels of cases among the age groups attending school.

And academy chains working in the city-region said they have also noticed numbers testing positive creeping up in December.

Tarun Kapur CBE, chief executive of The Dean Trust which runs schools across the city-region including ones in Sale, Ardwick and Wigan, said: “We have sophisticated Covid tracking systems in place across all of our schools and can report that over the last few days there has been a significant increase in staff and pupils testing positive, particularly in the more urban settings.”

What else has been said?

Earlier this year ManchesterWorld reported on the group Safe Ed For All UK, founded by Greater Manchester mum Lisa Diaz, which has throughout the pandemic castigated both national and local politicians and authorities for not doing anywhere near enough to keep schools Covid-secure.

The prospect of school closures, changes to the start date for the spring term and switches to remote learning again in the New Year have also been raised.

However, the education secretary has said sending large groups of pupils home from school should be a “last resort”.