Rising cases of coronavirus across Birmingham are having a profound impact on schools – with a staggering 12,995 pupils and 714 teachers off school isolating.
A quarter of the city’s schools – 112 in total – are now affected by cases.
The numbers involved are rising as cases also balloon across the city.
Under current guidance, a single positive test triggers quarantine for every pupil or staff member deemed to have been in contact with them.
In most schools this results in an entire ‘bubble’ of a class or year group being sent home for a fortnight.
The impact – including the need for childcare arrangements for working parents – is falling hard on families.
For school leaders it is a battle to maintain a high level of education and support for youngsters while facing the dual challenge of having some in school and some at home.
One head teacher described the situation as “horrific” – but said school leaders were walking a tight rope.
“It is a balance between saving people from catching a deadly virus and saving education. All heads are absolutely committed to doing the right thing for their pupils, staff and families,” said Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, who is head at Anderton Park Primary in Sparkhill.
“It is horrific to have so many out of school and we have to have a safe and feasible way to manage this.”
She currently has a small class isolating at home after a single case.
Out of 443 schools in the city, some 112 currently have bubbles of pupils isolating, said a Birmingham City Council spokesperson.
The number of pupils affected is 12,995, out of a total of 207,000.
A total of 412 staff are also isolating across the city.
City MP Liam Byrne, Birmingham Hodge Hill, said he has been speaking to head teachers this week and was desperately worried about the situation and the impact on schools and pupils.
He is calling for an emergency support package to help alleviate the situation, including on-site testing for children at school with a quick turnaround, to limit the numbers impacted; and funding aid to help schools cover the costs of extra teachers.
“We also need clarity urgently about GCSE and A-levels – pupils in those vital year groups have already lost learning time.”
Access to tests quickly for families with symptoms – and those who had been in contact – continued to be a massive issue, he added.
The impact on pupils of being back at home so soon after restarting could not be understated, he added – particularly for youngsters entitled to free school meals who might now be missing out, and on kids whose home lives are blighted by domestic violence and other pressures.
Lack of access to online learning was also an issue in some households.
It’s a theme taken up by another inner city head teacher who said it was an extremely challenging situation, particularly for schools in areas of deprivation.
“When children are at home the government expect online learning but many families have multiple children and limited bandwidth or devices, or none,” said the head.
He said free laptops filled some of the gap but do not come with free internet.
Filling in for isolating teachers with agency staff was also problematic, due to limited budgets and additional health risks.
And meanwhile teachers with some of their cohort isolating and others in school face the challenge of having to try to teach in class and simultaneously support those at home.
Earlier this month we reported that the city had 82 schools, and 7,000 pupils affected by the need to self isolate. That number has clearly gone up considerably in the fortnight since.
Cllr Ian Ward, city council leader, paid tribute then to school staff for their work through “difficult” circumstances.
He said efforts were also being made by schools and his education officers to ensure children who are isolating continue to receive schoolwork and support.
He also said every school in the city had been given a small batch of tests to help children and staff who are symptomatic to access tests and these would be regularly replenished.
Dr Lola Abudu, Midlands Regional Deputy Director for Public Health England, indicated efforts were being made to limit the number of pupils sent home – including by helping schools target only those children at highest risk of contact.
She said: “Schools have been doing a marvellous job in difficult circumstances.”
But the aim now was for schools to be able to quarantine the fewest numbers of pupils and staff, while protecting them.
“We really want to come down to those children who are most closely in contact with a case – health protection teams will be able to advise schools so the fewest number with highest risk are isolated.”
Mrs Hewitt-Clarkson, whose school is in an area currently experiencing a high level of Covid-19 positive cases, said limited quarantining was an admirable aim but difficult to achieve.
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“The return to school has gone incredibly well. The measures we have in place are working brilliantly.
“But we are also mindful that lots of people in our community and among our staff are scared of the virus, know people who have it or are worried about it. We are doing a lot of work to look after people’s well-being.
“So it is difficult. We work closely with Public Health England who are very helpful to clarify what needs to happen and how to make decisions, based on their definitions of close contact.
“Strictly speaking we should send home only those who have been in very close contact with those testing positive – this is defined as anyone who has been in face to face contact within a metre of someone for a minute, or within two metres for 15 minutes, or have skin to skin contact.
“We can organise seating plans and limit interactions and seek to achieve those limits but when it comes to it we are all erring on the side of caution.
“We all want a feasible and safe plan to ensure as many children stay in school as possible but it is a difficult balance.”