The Struggle to Find a New Normal – Pandemic Management in Schools

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 14 September 2021
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Education Update; Self-isolation; Coronavirus

 I think it is fair to say that the beginning of this new school year has not gone as well as was hoped. Initially, school pandemic management guidance was, according to Daniel McCrossan SDLP MLA, speaking on the Nolan Show, “not fit for purpose”.  Following a deluge of complaints from school leaders, the Assembly was then recalled on Thursday September 9th to debate the issue and meanwhile Executive Ministers reviewed the current PHA guidance which was clearly proving unworkable.

The well-intentioned guidance for schools on self-isolation previously agreed by The Executive had been aimed at preventing large numbers of pupils and staff having to repeatedly self-isolate for 10 days if they are identified as a close contact of a positive case. The actual result was to precipitate an overload of requests for PCR tests which the system just couldn’t cope with. Anecdotal evidence also showed that many school principals decided that the safest course of action was to keep in place the safety measures which operated last term including using class “bubbles” as numerous close contact cases were arising in the first week back in the new term.

Additionally, this placed a massive extra responsibility onto school leaders in terms of organising testing of pupils and operating tracing. The deployment of a mobile testing unit to Larne for example, was an attempt to manage the situation at a local level as the schools there struggled to get pupils back into school amid numerous close contact reports. The rule to self-isolate for 48 hours, get a PCR test and if negative go back to school, then be tested again on day 8 just didn’t work. Also, The Nolan Show revealed problems with both staff and pupils testing positive between a day 2 PCR negative test and the next test.

The BBC reported that;

“The word that you hear a lot is "unsustainable". Principals were saying they couldn't go on like this. Michael Carville, head of Regent House School in Newtownards for example said that he hadn't done any education since he got back to school at the start of term. It had been all contact tracing and many other heads were in agreement.

St John the Baptist Primary School principal Chris Donnelly struck a note of realism when he stated that;

".... there's a trade-off in society at the moment. We know that opening the schools can only do one thing. It's only going to lead in an increase in the number of cases, but we understand that society needs to function. If we're going to have that system in place, then we need to trust that the system is robust.”

In the face of the practical problems described, the Health and Education Ministers accepted the inevitable and changed tack. Robbie Meredith BBCNI Education Correspondent summed up the situation reporting on September 12th that according to The Public Health Authority, “Close contact definition may have to change.” So the change of approach is that the PHA will identify and ask "the very closest contacts” - for example very close friends in a class - to isolate and get a test, but that other contacts in school - such as those in the same class or who sit near the case - will not routinely be asked to isolate and book a test.

Schools have been given new interim advice, which will be followed by detailed guidance in the coming days. Essentially parents and guardians will be "primarily responsible" for informing schools their child has tested positive for Covid-19. Dr Elizabeth Mitchell, the PHA's contact tracing director, said that the approach would allow more children to stay in school, adding that, "there is a balance to be struck in terms of risk".

As we struggle to find a new normal which will balance control of the pandemic and minimum disruption to children’s education, we must keep in the front of our minds the long term damage to our young people.

Primary 1 teachers and special school staff are reporting serious regression in children following the lockdowns. The lack of interaction with larger groups during lockdown periods is proving a serious issue. Special Needs children in particular benefit hugely from their classroom experiences and without it their development has not been progressing.

A report by The Children’s Commissioner for Northern Ireland has warned that;

"The long-term impact of the pandemic on children and young people's mental health has the potential to be significant, particularly if appropriate support and intervention is not provided." The report - called A New and Better Normal - also said that many existing inequalities have widened.

As has been flagged up many times in this column, children in poverty were identified as being particularly impacted by the move to online education, as they were more likely not to have access to an appropriate digital device or online IT access. They were also more likely to be living in accommodation that did not have adequate inside or outside space to study and for recreational activities in lockdown.

"The continued closure of schools has undoubtedly exacerbated educational inequalities which were previously well documented before the pandemic."

In older age groups the research conducted for the NICCY report found that 41% of primary seven respondents and 52% of 16-year-olds felt their mental and emotional health had worsened during the pandemic.

The wider picture being reported in the media is that despite a surge in cases and hospital admissions the hope is to “soldier on” without resorting to another lockdown. Both schools and society in general are going to have to find a way of indeed balancing the risk of keeping things going and keeping safe. The big difference is of course the vaccination rollout, and it is interesting to note that both in the USA and New Zealand and Australia huge efforts are being made to reach the same level of coverage which we have here.

This article is correct at 14/09/2021

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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