The beginning of a new calendar year comes with more Covid headaches, with the Secretary of State for Education writing an open letter to education and childcare leaders amidst fears of ongoing Covid disruptions.
Keeping learning face-to-face is addressed as Nadhim Zahawi’s main priority, with the Education Secretary stating that education workers ‘have already done an outstanding job in implementing measures that have helped to keep children and young people in face-to-face environments and you have my continued support in keeping your settings open’. Those same education workers, however, are cautious that the coming weeks and terms will bring more disruptions and upheaval, with Zahawi also acknowledging concerns over the Omicron variant.
Already in the first week back after the Christmas break, many schools have had to collapse timetables and stagger entry back for certain year groups, as they carry out whole school testing.
The Secretary of State goes on to address that many schools are planning on carrying out examinations and assessments early in the new year, so that the students who have worked so hard towards them have the chance to demonstrate their learning.
It must be highlighted, however, that this also brings new pressures for the staff and students involved, with teaching and support staff trying to organise and prioritise the content students need to know in order to successfully pass their assessments.
Furthermore, there are also significant concerns for the impact this additional workload may have on staff’s emotional and mental wellbeing.
Zahawi mentions that he has received good feedback from schools regarding carbon dioxide monitors, stating that 7,000 more air cleaning units will be available to schools, before going on to mention that Ofsted inspections will be postponed for the majority of schools in January, so that sufficient testing of students can take place following the Christmas holidays.
The Education Secretary then goes on to address how staff absences will impact face-to-face learning and asks teachers to adopt a ‘flexible approach’, such as combining classes and for remote learning to be used as a very last resort. This suggestion has criticised by several education unions, as NEU, NASUWT, UNISON, GMB and Unite have all called on members who are expected to take on students from other classes to raise this with their unions, as it may increase virus transmission.
This also raises the question of how a member of staff is meant to incorporate additional students into their class and ensure they are taught at the appropriate level for their learning, as well as keeping their original students on track – no easy feat should Ofsted then be returning to full-time inspections next month.
Nadhim Zahawi concludes his letter with a reiteration that face-to-face learning is a priority, but with questions over the effectiveness of face masks being used in classrooms, doubts still remain as to how schools will cope with a potential Omicron ‘crunch’, subsequent staff and student absences, the return of Ofsted inspections in February and mock examinations.