Preston leader calls for online secondary school learning to reduce Covid rates, as union pushes for "rota system" for pupils
Lancashire’s secondary schools should consider shifting more of their teaching online in an attempt to drive down spiralling rates of coronavirus.
That is the message from Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown, who has also suggested that pupils could spend an alternating fortnight of two weeks in the classroom followed by two weeks learning from home.
The Lancashire Post can reveal that the concept of a 'rota system' - on a cycle yet to be determined - is one being actively pursued by the five Lancashire districts of the country’s largest teaching union.
Cllr Brown admits that such moves “may not be popular”, but says that he has seen local evidence which shows that the measures could be effective at reducing Covid levels in the most badly-affected areas.
Many of Lancashire’s council areas have spent months in the upper reaches of the Covid case rate table - and Preston itself this week exceeded the 500 cases per 100,000 people mark, with the number of infections showing no sign of slowing.
The Labour leader of the city says his first preference would have been for a national “circuit breaker” lockdown which partially coincided with the current half term, as called for by his party at a national level.
However, with that chance having now passed, he believes a stark choice lies ahead.
“Nobody wants to see the education of children and young people affected – but if the public health evidence is that you’ll reduce infections by encouraging post-11 learning online, then you can’t ignore it,” Cllr Brown warned.
“If the sky-high infection rates aren’t going to reduce in Preston and across Lancashire, you’ve got to look at where the infections are - and that means some difficult decisions.
“It won’t make a difference if you just shut down sectors which are not the primary driver [of transmission] – you’re just skirting around the edges.
“Either you put a lot more secondary school learning online - or you could have a system of two weeks in, two weeks out for pupils. You could also look at other things like ramping up the testing of schoolkids, their families and teachers.
“If it’s going to save lives, you’ve got to do it,” Cllr Brown said.
He stressed that disadvantaged pupils would need to be provided with the necessary equipment to enable effective home learning. It emerged last week that the government had reduced the allocations of laptops for schools to supply to eligible youngsters in the event that they needed to be sent home because of a Covid case in their ‘bubble’.
However, ministers have been steadfast that their priority is to keep schools open – fearing that pupils’ education and mental health could suffer if they were forced from class again for a prolonged period. The national lockdown in the spring led to most secondary pupils being kept away from school for six months.
It was established early in the pandemic that children and young people are much less likely to fall severely ill with Covid – but more evidence is now emerging about their role in transmission.
Public Health England’s latest weekly surveillance report shows that education settings accounted for around a quarter of reported incidents where there was at least one linked case of Covid – 234 out of 983. Only care homes had a higher proportion of connected cases.
Last week, a report from the University of Edinburgh, analysing evidence from more than 130 countries around the world, found that reopening schools led to an average 24 percent rise in the ‘R number’, the figure which indicates the rate at which coronavirus is spreading.
That statistic may come as little surprise to Ian Watkinson, from the Preston district of the National Education Union (NEU) – who is himself a primary schoolteacher.
“It’s virtually impossible to socially distance in any school – secondary or primary.
“Classrooms in this country are the smallest in Europe, but our class sizes are the biggest.
“Schools are doing the best they can with the risk assessments they’ve got, but the infection is still spreading massively through schools," said Mr. Watkinson, himself a primary school teacher.
He says that the NEU in Lancashire is “really pushing” the idea of a rota system for pupils attending secondary school in areas subject to Tier 3 Covid restrictions - as Lancashire has been for the past fortnight.
The county's branch - made up of five districts - has already spoken to education and public health bosses at Lancashire County Council about the possibility.
The government indicated back in August that it was something schools could be asked to implement in areas subject to local Covid rules. However, the policy has never been enacted in spite of huge swathes of the country now being under the most severe restrictions.
“There are different ways that this can work - and actually is working now in several sixth form colleges.
"We know that there are quite a number of secondary teachers who are sympathetic to the idea - and we have been talking to the local authority about it for a while.
“Yes, you’ll have kids who are in and out of school – but it will bring down the numbers in those settings and, in theory, reduce the potential transmission back into communities,” Mr. Watkinson added.
A spokesperson for Lancashire County Council said of wholesale online learning for secondary schools and the rota concept: "This isn't being proposed for Lancashire's schools at this time - but, along with all aspects of our response to the pandemic, is being regularly reviewed."
The NEU at a national level last week wrote to education secretary Gavin Williamson asking him to "explore the potential" of rotas.
However, during a video call with teachers and parents in Lancashire earlier this week, Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said that any shift to routine online learning should be “the very last resort”.
“That face-to-face interaction is really important for the quality of the learning experience that children have.
“It’s also a safeguarding [issue], because teachers do spot when a child is distressed or perhaps not behaving in a way they would normally behave - and it’s difficult to pick up those signals so readily if you’re not having face-to-face contact, particularly if a child is vulnerable.
“I do recognise that transmission will happen – children go in and out of the school gate and may be mixing with family members and other members of the community.
“But if you listen to what the scientists are saying…they all recognise it’s a balance between getting the right public health solution, but also that prioritising children’s learning and their mental and socio-emotional wellbeing is very important, too,” Ms. Green added.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The government has set out a tiered set of contingency scenarios for schools if deemed necessary because of local Covid infection rates, and these include rotating secondary school pupils between learning at home and coming into school.
“Confusingly, however, these contingency scenarios aren’t linked to the system of local alert levels, and it is not clear under what circumstances they would be implemented. We have asked for clarification.
“In the meantime, schools continue to do their very best to manage Covid control measures and keep as many pupils in school as possible. They are doing a fantastic job under extremely difficult circumstances.
“What we need is for the government to ensure that there are enough laptops and sufficient connectivity to ensure disadvantaged pupils are able to access online resources from home if they have to self-isolate or we end up in a situation where rota systems have to be implemented.”
A government spokesperson said: “Schools have put in place a range of protective measures, endorsed by Public Health England, to reduce the risk of transmission.
“All other possible measures, including implementing restrictions on other sectors, would be explored before considering restricting attendance in education.”
Figures from the department of education show that, last week, 55 percent of England's schools sent home at least one pupil because of coronavirus.