TRYING to continue classes during an international health crisis has been "the most stressful time ever", according to a Wiltshire education chief.

George Croxford oversees four secondary schools, two primary schools and one junior school in Swindon and Wiltshire in his role as CEO of Royal Wootton Bassett Academy Trust.

Two of them – Royal Wootton Bassett and Lawn Manor academies – had entire year groups sent home as an extra safety measure after positive Covid-19 test results for some students.

Mr Croxford said; “Every school has done this differently and shared advice and experience because they’re of different sizes and have different routines. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The level of complexity is staggering.

“It’s been incredibly hard because government guidance changed so often, there are updates every day, it’s ridiculous. I’m horrified because ministers try to portray like it’s back to normal now but it’s not remotely normal.

“We’re making things as close to normal as possible while doing risk assessments and Covid guidelines but things had to be set up in different ways, they must understand that.”

Plenty of procedures are in place to minimise the chance of pupils from different year groups mixing together and ensuring they stay safely apart during lessons, like one-way systems and staggered breaks and lunchtimes.

At Ridgeway School and Sixth Form, the usual end-of-lesson routines are flipped on their head as students stay in the same classroom while the teachers come to them.
Staff move between five rooms each day while the children have quiet reading time as teachers arrive and prepare.

Nine out of the 1,650 pupils have tested positive for coronavirus since September, though four of these infections happened during half-term, and groups of up to 20 close-contact classmates have had to self-isolate each time.

James Povoas is the school’s headteacher and the chairman of the Swindon Association of Secondary Headteachers, which links together several others in the borough.

He said: “This is no small undertaking, it takes a lot of hours for the senior team to deal with.

“If you have a positive result, you do test-and-trace to see when the student was last in school and speak to Public Health England and send home students that were in contact with them, then send letters to parents and teach individuals at home.

“The big challenge is the number of people that are self-isolating. Staff are working doubly hard, they’re on duty more, and teachers have to set aside time to upload lessons for students learning from home. 

“We have had great feedback from parents about the virtual learning environment, and staff have responded amazingly to this challenge to keep bringing learning to life.

“Most days, we have between five and eight members of staff out of school. If staff are off, a colleague goes into the classroom to facilitate a link-up via Teams so they can teach from home.

“We are trying to take all opportunities to minimise risk and ensure lessons remain inspiring and creative. Students are being fantastic and understanding, not complaining about wearing masks.”

“Parents were getting worried earlier in the year because the R rate was rising. But at a time like this, when there’s a lockdown so students are not going out and meeting up on weekends or evenings outside of school, schools are the safest places to be because there’s less exposure to risk.”

Mr Croxford agreed: “There haven’t been many cases spread in school, it’s all outside school. The systems the schools have are working well, though it puts unbelievable pressure on teachers and kids.”

One silver lining has seen extra enthusiasm from students in the classroom after missing out on months of regular learning during the first lockdown.

Mr Povoas added: “Every head was pleased to receive students back to their schools and be able to try and restore business as usual as much as possible. 

“In September, students were so excited to be back because last term, they had to stay home apart from Years 10 and 12 so they are making the most of this and appreciate being face-to-face with staff again.”

Mr Croxford added: “People who had six months off and used to think they were fed up of school actually missed it. They had this opportunity to take responsibility for their learning and came back wanting to work hard. I hope a lot of people realised the value of education and importance of school.”

“It’s hard to imagine that next year could be worse than 2020. Fingers crossed the vaccine goes to the vulnerable and key workers like teachers and we can start moving forward.”