Play time like prison camp and supervised lavatory trips: the harsh reality of schools during Covid

The school that sent pupils home to isolate at least seven times

Haslingden High School has had its fair share of troubles. Four years ago, 31 of its pupils were at the Manchester Arena to see the Ariana Grande concert on the night of the terrorist attack, three of whom suffered shrapnel injuries. 

Yet even the trauma of a suicide bombing did not prepare the school community for the difficulties it has faced over the past year, according to Russell Clarke, the school’s deputy head.

“We’ve had some really challenging times,” he said. “But now we have everyone struggling at once.” 

When the secondary school in Rossendale, Lancashire reopened in September 2020 following the first lockdown, the autumn term was a “real disaster” with pupils sent home to isolate on 1,700 occasions.

“One mother rang me recently and said it was her child’s seventh period of isolation,” Mr Clarke said. “So that is 70 days of isolation for one pupil. She was saying just how her child was suffering emotionally, that he has missed out on playing with friends and his confidence has dropped.”

Mr Clarke said there were a “handful” of pupils who have been sent home to isolate at least six times over the past year. This is despite the school’s meticulous approach to contact tracing, which ensures children are sent home as little as possible.

“We don’t send whole bubbles home. We run our own track and trace system,” he explained. “For every child that tests positive, we ask how they got to and from school, who they travelled with, who they spent breaks with and who they were sitting within two metres of at lessons.”

When the school reopened on March 8 following the third national lockdown, cases were initially fairly low. But as the delta variant spread, positive cases began to rise again, as did the numbers of pupils sent home to isolate.

By mid-May, an average of one third of pupils were off isolating each week, with between 400 and 500 pupils at home each day. Transmission peaked just before half term, at 77 positive cases and more than 600 students sent home, leading the entire school to close four days early as a “firebreak”. 

In recent weeks, cases have fluctuated and the number of pupils sent home to isolate ranges between 200 and 500 each week.

“It has just been so difficult for these children,” he said. “They have been left with such a watered down version of the education they should be getting. Children are coping remarkably well, but it is not without its cost. There is a real desire from children just to get back to some form of normality.”

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Play time ‘like a prison camp’

Godwin Primary School in Dagenham, east London describes itself as a “busy but friendly school, with lots going on”. One glance at its early morning and afternoon club schedule would demonstrate this is an accurate description. 

Or at least it was before the pandemic. 

The primary school, where more than a quarter of pupils are eligible for free school meals, used to run a packed itinerary of extra-curricular activities ranging from girls’ football, dodgeball and table tennis to performing arts, street dancing and choir.

But aside from breakfast club, all other activities were suspended during the first lockdown and remain closed until further notice. 

“My daughter hasn’t had any after school clubs since last year. They used to have gymnastics, football and I had signed her up for cheerleading,” one parent said. “But none of that has been reinstated. There have been no swimming lessons, even though swimming pools are open again.

“Their play time is in restricted areas – it’s like a prison camp. Each bubble is confined to its own area. They are acting like we are still in the middle of a crisis when they should be trying to ease the kids out of it.”

Official guidance from the Department for Education says schools should keep children in “bubbles” to limit transmission. This can mean that before- or after-school clubs usually open to children of all ages become difficult to run if bubbles cannot mix.

Godwin Primary School confirmed that with the exception of the breakfast club, they are not currently running any clubs before or after school. “This is because we want to avoid classes of children mixing before and after school, thus minimising risks from Covid-19. Clubs will begin again as soon as it is thought safe,” the school said.

Framwellgate School in Durham closed on June 23 following a rise in Covid cases

Entire nursery closed after just one positive case

An entire nursery in Durham has closed for at least 10 days after just recording just one case of Covid-19. Seaham Harbour Nursery School shut its doors on June 24 and will remain closed until July 5 at the earliest, on the advice of the local authority and public health officials. 

It said that home learning activities are available on its website and via email to parents, but with children ages between two and four-years-old, there is only so far online materials can go.

It is one of five schools in Durham to send all their pupils home last week and switch to remote learning following a rise in Covid cases, with schools elsewhere closing early with no plans to reopen again until September.

Framwellgate School closed on June 23 for the rest of the week after parents were told that a “circuit breaker was the only option” following a rise in cases at the secondary school. 

The following day, Andy Bryers, the headteacher, said: “We currently have 300 students and eight teachers self-isolating. The delta strain is so virulent with different symptoms. I thought these days were over.” 

Pupils in years eight and nine have been told to stay at home another week and not return until July 5 at the earliest.

Two other primary schools in Durham also closed their doors last week following an increase in cases. 

Elsewhere, Canford School in Bournemouth has closed two weeks early for summer after “a number” of positive cases. Minsterley Primary School in Shrewsbury is currently closed for at least a week and Sherburn High School, York was due to reopen on Monday after being shut for 10 days.

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Science labs off limits and supervised trips to the lavatory

For pupils at Chorlton High School in south Manchester, it does not feel as though the UK is potentially just weeks away from “Freedom Day” on July 19. The secondary school, which has been designated a specialist arts college, has barred most of its students from using the music rooms and science labs for more than a year.

One mother said: “There has been no access to science labs since last March. My son has just started going back to the music rooms, but they have been closed since last year. The school says they are not allowed to use the facilities because it means children have to touch things.”

The school has axed its morning break and operates a reduced lunch time of 30 minutes, which is the only break children have all day. 

“All they want to do is get outside and take their masks off,” she said. “And since last year, they have not been allowed to go to the toilet on their own. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Andy Park, the school’s executive headteacher, said the school has been following the Government’s guidance, adding: “It has limited the amount of practical work that can go on. Children are taught in predominantly one classroom for the whole day so they are not moving around and spreading the virus.”

He said the school, which caters for students aged 11-16, has tried to allow its GCSE pupils some access to specialist facilities such as labs and music rooms, while this has all been put on hold for younger pupils. 

Mr Park said the reduced lunch break is also operating until further notice and is designed to ensure children do not mix with other bubbles.

He explained that children are supervised by an adult when they go to the toilet to make sure they “don’t go off and meet other children and cross-contaminate bubbles”.

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