Headteacher warns how government guidance on self-isolating will disrupt school life in September. August 10th 2020.

The head teacher of one of Somerset’s biggest Secondary schools has warned about how difficult it will be to cope with the prospect of one or two pupils becoming infected with Covid-19 according to the present guidance from Public Health England (PHE).

Mark Woodlock, Headteacher at The Blue School in Wells, is contingency planning for September to account for the changes that are to be expected.

‘The bigger issue for me for next year is the contingency planning because as it stands at this moment in time the advice is if we get a confirmed case in school the rest of the bubble and the staff that are connected to that bubble go home for 14 days.’ 

He had been speaking to a representative of PHE just before our interview.

‘The admission was’, he continues ‘that the advice isn’t really set out for a school of this size. Most of the advice is designed for primary schools and small school settings. Nobody’s really considered what it would look like in a school of this size where with one case we would send home 270 students and somewhere between 10 and 15 staff.’

‘The bubble is the year group and as it stands at this moment in time we haven’t got a good mechanism for separating a year group in social time. Also, the student wouldn’t be able to tell us all the people they would have come into contact with.’

This creates all sorts of problems. ’14 days is a third of a half term and that is only one case. We have 1500 students and 200 staff so are we going to get more than one case during the course of the Winter? Almost certainly yes. For how many times is a year group going to be sent home?’

It’s not hard to imagine the disruption to students’ education and lives as well as the school community as a whole.

‘A phrase I use the whole time to make people imagine the situation is that we are a small village that turns up everyday in a reasonably confined space from quite a wide area (including staff who come from up to 50 miles away everyday). There’s no other place in this area where you would get this many people in one place for a significant period of time. So what impact does population density have on the scenarios that we are planning for?’

There are other various problems that sending a whole year group throws up. Mark worries about the parents and the wider community. ‘What message does it send to the community if I send 270 children home?’ How many parents with children from a different year group are going to refuse to send their children in because there’s a case at The Blue School?’

‘There are practical issues with transporting that amount of students home. It would have to be at the end of the day but this presents another issue because our buses are mixed year group buses. It sounds almost nonsensical to say I’ve got a year group that are going to go home and they can’t come back into school but by the way they are going to have get on a bus mixing with all the other year groups.’

Similarly, a bigger problem arises when sending staff home. Teachers quickly saw the impact in March of staff going off sick or having to go home because their own children were being sent home because of fears of an infection. The problem is then how to manage a school with a lot of staff absences.

Mark will continue contingency planning for The Blue School with the local authority on August 18th. He hopes that he doesn’t end up with a situation where he has to close the school.

‘At the moment we think it is possible that we will stay open if we have 10-15 staff absent, but we will have to be inventive and do things like run classes with the teacher online, but the class supervised internally.  Another option would be to collapse certain classes, like sixth form groups for those periods where we have too much demand.’ 

‘It will be a close call and will very much depend on the nature of the staff not able to come in.  In addition, I am worried about the possibility that there may be too few supply staff around willing and able to come in.’