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Schools return in Manchester: ‘We don’t want to see 90 students to one teacher’ warns union rep over Covid

The union says ministers have finally begun to listen to education professionals but has not acted quickly or decisively enough.

An education union says it fears further disruption due to Covid-19 as Greater Manchester’s schools go back after the Christmas holidays.

Staff absences due to Covid-19 caused major problems in December, with the National Education Union (NEU) saying that some schools in the city-region were reporting up to 25% of employees unable to come into work because they were sick or self-isolating.

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And the union is worried that the spring term could see more of the same in Greater Manchester’s classrooms.

The Department for Education (DfE) has made some adjustments to arrangements in schools to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but the NEU said while this was welcome ministers had once again acted too late and the measures did not go far enough.

The Government has said maintaining face-to-face teaching and minimising disruption to learning is its priority.

What did the union say about Greater Manchester’s schools going back?

The NEU said most Greater Manchester schools were starting the new term with an inset day for staff training, with many welcoming pupils back through the doors on Wednesday (5 January).

The DfE has brought back the wearing of face coverings in secondary schools in classrooms and made some ventilation equipment available, while also floating more controversial ideas such as teachers having to take combined classes if their colleagues were having to stay at home.

The union said that after the disruption experienced due to Omicron in December it was still concerned about the prospects for the next few weeks and gave a mixed response to the Government’s actions.

We take a look at the Northumberland term dates for 2022. Picture: Getty Images.

NEU regional secretary Peter Middleman said: “Our focus is on the DfE advice which emerged over the bank holiday weekend, which reintroduces face coverings in secondary schools and promises delivery of 7,000 purification devices.

“This is a belated recognition that ventilation and filtration in classrooms is important in suppressing the transmission of the virus, but when there are 300,000 classrooms in England 7,000 devices are woefully inadequate.

“Had the Government grappled with this problem back in summer transmission rates, notwithstanding the new variant, probably wouldn’t be as high as they currently are.

“The focus is on the availability of staff. Some schools before Christmas had up to 25% of staff absent with Covid symptoms or self-isolating. I think we can expect that things will possibly get worse.

“That means you could have combined classes putting 80 or 90 students together with one member of staff, creating conditions which are not good for learning and are probably ideal for students to transmit the virus among themselves and then potentially pass it on to staff.

“It is good that the DfE has reacted, but again it is frustrating that they have reacted too late and with such short notice for heads.”

Concerns about the academic year ahead

Mr Middleman said the NEU had concerns about how Covid-19 may continue to affect education in the months to come.

He said: “We are already in the third consecutive academic year of educational disruption, and our fear is that 2022 will become the third calendar year with some form of educational disruption being put on students in a way that was entirely avoidable.

“That is particularly the case for students facing national examinations. They can ill afford renewed uncertainty about their ability to face these in the traditional way.”

Unions say further mitigations may be needed to curb the spread of the Omicron variant once schools reopen. Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Mr Middleman said the union was calling on Ofsted to scrap its planned visits to schools, saying they would be facing so much upheaval that having to get ready to be inspected as well would be unfair.

He also said the Government should have listened to education professionals when shaping its response to Covid-19 in classrooms throughout the pandemic and in particular since last summer.

What has the Government said?

Announcing the latest measures, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “Being in the classroom is undoubtedly the very best place for children and I’m looking forward to welcoming pupils back next week to continue their face-to-face learning, which is so important for their education and wellbeing.

“There is no doubt that the Omicron variant presents challenges but the entire education sector has responded with a Herculean effort, and for that I thank each and every one of you.

“The Prime Minister and I have been clear that education is our number one priority. These measures will bolster our support schools as we do everything in our power to minimise disruption.”