‘It’s been awful’: teachers at English secondary schools on the first week back

In England, following a Christmas break full of uncertainty about further restrictions, a rise in the number of Omicron Covid cases and disrupted Christmas plans due to self-isolating family members, pupils returned to school at the start of January for a new term.

Only a few days before teachers returned to school, new advice emerged from the Department for Education (DfE) saying all secondary school pupils should wear masks in classrooms in an attempt to stem a rise in cases of the Omicron variant.

Three teachers in England speak about their first week of term and their concerns for the coming weeks.

‘I don’t think I’ve known it this bad since I started teaching nearly 20 years ago’

“It’s been awful,” said Julia*, who teaches at a secondary school in London. “We had less than half of our students show up for a lateral flow test before the start of term and quite a few of our parents didn’t grant permission for their children to be tested.”

Julia said she feels concerned as students are hesitant to wear masks and a significant portion of their staff are off sick. “We are already talking about having to send students home as we don’t have enough cover,” said the 50-year-old, who has been in the profession for nearly 20 years. “I’m fully jabbed and have had Covid twice – catching it again is an inevitability at this point.”

She said her school has a high number of disadvantaged children and the situation with Covid has become more difficult following years of little to no funding. “We don’t have enough toilets so we use portaloos and sometimes when it rains too much in my classroom it floods. At the end of the day it’s the children who lose out.

“I think this government is the absolute pits and schools are being hung out to dry. Announcements are left to the last minute when bigger-picture thinking would be a great help. At the end of the day, good teaching happens when you can plan effectively. I don’t think I’ve known it this bad in schools since I started teaching.”

‘We feel hamstrung’

Tom, 40, a deputy headteacher in Essex who leads his secondary school’s Covid response, said staff and student absences have been at their highest this term since the start of the pandemic.

“We’ve been letting a different year group back into the school each day and doing on-site testing. But as we wait for year groups to come in, we’re finding that pupils are testing positive,” he said. “So I’ve been spending much of my time informing staff of students who are positive, making sure online learning is set up, and letting families know when their child will return. We’ve got so many that we’ve had to put them on a centralised spreadsheet.”

The school is well prepared for remote teaching, said Tom, but staff shortages concern him. “In mid-December, we started to get hit quite badly. At the beginning of the holiday, myself and 20% of my colleagues tested positive. It was my second positive result during the pandemic. It was obviously disarming for those of us who couldn’t see our families over the Christmas period.”

This term, the school has introduced the compulsory wearing of masks in communal spaces, according to government guidance. However, Tom is frustrated that the rule is unenforceable. “The DfE said no child should be denied an education if they refuse to wear a mask. The vast majority of our students are really good about it, but we feel a bit hamstrung. The DfE doesn’t seem to be able to make a decision.”

‘I’m not sure how much longer I can continue’

For Amanda* in Birmingham, the Covid situation at her school is better than they expected it to be. “We haven’t had many absences compared to other times during the pandemic,” said the secondary school teacher. “Staff absence is very low and our children have been incredibly compliant about masks.”

Her main concern is the lack of ventilation and the threat of an inspection from Ofsted. “I have a CO2 monitor in my classroom but no real guidance on how to use it. The readings appear to be normal but if it gets high, what am I supposed to do? I already have the windows open.

“Workload is a huge problem at the moment. We are trying to help students catch up, and prepare them for exams and teacher-assessed grades, all the while with the threat of Ofsted hanging over us. It’s a fear for many of us and feels like the DfE have forgotten teachers are not immune to the pressures of Covid, let alone preparing for an inspection.”

With the added pay freeze from 2021, Amanda and her colleagues are feeling the pinch of the continuing pressure. “Teaching used to be a well-paid job with a good pension but with inflation at an all-time high, and energy bills going up now I’m not sure how much longer I can continue.”

*Some names have been changed.