Fears social distancing ‘not possible’ in North-East schools

SOCIAL distancing will not be possible in many schools in County Durham according to the area’s largest teachers’ union.

A national survey of teachers found nearly nine in 10 teachers believe staying socially distant from both pupils and other staff will not be achievable when schools reopen this week.

A poll of nearly 6,000 school staff in England found that 86 per cent of respondents said minimising contact between pupils will not be possible, while two thirds fear guidance to avoid busy corridors, entrances and exits is unrealistic.

Echoing the results of the survey, Nik Jones, a representative for the National Education Union (NEU) in County Durham, said: “The overwhelming response we’ve had from Durham educators is that social distancing will not be possible and more recently concerns have been raised that older children, listening to the messages coming from the Government, seem to think that they’re not at risk and so there’s no need to socially distance.”

She added: “Most schools, with massively stretched budgets and crumbling buildings do not have the space to reduce class sizes to achieve the social distancing required in other comparable situations and cannot afford to staff smaller groups even if space were available.”

John Hall, North-East national executive member for NASUWT, said: “Are schools going to be able to cope and safe working practices for students and for teachers?

“We’ll just have to wait and see.

“Some schools will not be too bad but in some it will be a challenge. They will have to look at their risk assessments and see whether it is safe and if not they will have to adapt.

“We’re not going to support our members going into unsafe environments.”

Adding that social distancing among students was going to be difficult, he added: “Staff distancing from students and among themselves is going to be a challenge.

“It’s just a different way of working and it goes against what we do when we’re dealing with children and young people.

“Hopefully when teachers see how a new way of working is implemented they will have more confidence.”

The national survey by Tes found more than a quarter of staff may not comply with the test and trace programme should there be a Covid-19 outbreak at their school, while more than a third feel the Government’s approach to coronavirus safety in schools will not work and leaves them “at risk”.

Around 4,500 teachers were among the nearly 6,000 staff who responded to the online survey, which took place at the end of last term.

According to Tes, one teacher said: “I don’t feel that my information would definitely be safe, and unless I had assurances that my information would be used for no other purpose, I don’t know how willing I would be to cooperate.”

Many pupils in England have not been to class since March, when schools were closed except to look after vulnerable children and those of keyworkers.

An open letter to parents from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on Sunday insisted schools are safe, while reassuring parents that the health risk posed to children by Covid-19 is “extremely low”.

“If a child is not in school, they stand to lose far more than just a few months of learning. It could well put a huge dent in their future life chances,” he said.

Among those to urge parents to send their children back to classrooms is Boris Johnson, who warned that pupils face greater harm by continuing to stay at home.

The UK’s chief medical officers issued a joint statement that said “very few, if any” children and teenagers would come to long-term harm from the virus solely by attending school.

But some 59 per cent of school staff said they feel guidelines on safety would be “difficult” to achieve, while another 17 per cent said it would be “impossible”, according to Tes.

One respondent said their school does not have the indoor space to keep pupils apart, while staff working in special schools said that some pupils may not understand the concept of social distancing or being in a “bubble”.

According to Tes, another respondent said: “Everyone is working extra hours and the constantly changing advice is extremely stressful.

“Our cleaning staff have expressed extreme anxiety at having the children’s and staff’s health in their hands.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “Getting all children back into their classrooms full-time in September is a national priority because it is the best place for their education, development and wellbeing.”

“This will be particularly important for disadvantaged children and those with special educational needs.

“We have always been clear in our guidance about the protective measures that schools should implement to reduce risks for staff and pupils as far as possible.

“Parents are becoming increasingly confident in their children returning to school, which is testament to the work of school staff across the country who are putting in place a range of protective measures to prepare to welcome back all pupils at the start of term.”

The Northern Echo | Durham