Sixty-five pupils and staff from a school forced to abandon plans to close early after legal threats from the government will now have to isolate on Christmas day after a flurry of cases.
Helen Rowland, chief executive of the Focus Trust, said she is “very concerned for the welfare of the isolating staff who live alone” after the outbreaks at Freehold Academy, in Oldham.
The trust was very publicly over-ruled in November by Vicky Beer (pictured above), the regional school commissioner for Lancashire and West Yorkshire, after announcing plans to close a week early for Christmas to “safeguard the wellbeing of staff and pupils”.
If the government allowed us to do what we know is right for our particular communities we would not now be facing increased rates of transmission
Now Rowland has written to Beer, in correspondence seen by Schools Week, to say: “This is exactly what we were trying to avoid when we opted to do a remote learning week, move our holidays or have two inset days – all of which were over turned by the DfE.”
She also forwarded a letter the trust sent to staff which states: “I know you will have had some lovely activities planned over the holidays and be feeling extremely disappointed that these cannot go ahead. I just want to let you know that our thoughts are with you and we hope you cope with the isolation.”
The letter was sent on Friday before stricter Christmas restrictions were announced across the country. However, three households are still permitted to form a bubble for Christmas day in Oldham.
Fifty eight children in the Oldham school’s early years unit – which is open plan as they cannot have single class bubbles – will be self-isolating until December 27th, along with seven staff.
The trust said the school has received “exemplary” feedback from the Health and Safety Executive over its Covid measures after a November site visit. They put the burst bubble down to transmission being “so high in the local community”.
‘We are very concerned for the welfare of isolating staff’
It’s one of six cases at the 470-pupil school last week, with a further 90 children and 15 staff isolating until tomorrow.
Rowland told Beer: “We are very concerned for the welfare of the isolating staff who live alone and will do everything we can to support them at this very difficult time.”
Speaking to Schools Week, Rowland added the situation was “repeated up and down the country where the virus is prevalent”.
“If the government had allowed us to do what we know is right for our particular communities, and move to a high quality remote learning week for one week only, we would not now be facing these increased rates of transmission or having people isolate over the Christmas period.”
The trust, which runs 15 schools, had to back down after threats that ministers would use coronavirus legal powers to win an injunction to force the school to stay open.
Just last week, Greenwich council was forced to withdraw a request for its schools to move to online learning after education secretary Gavin Williamson took legal action.
It was one of several councils to face legal threats in a move that has further fractured relationships between the sector and the government.
Writing for Schools Week today, Cllr Danny Thorpe – leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich council – said he was “completed shocked” at the government’s actions.
“The government decided to embark on a course of confrontation rather than collaboration. And this coming at a time when councils like the Royal Borough of Greenwich and communities like ours needed them most.”
He called for a “fully coordinated response” rather than “Whitehall simply barking orders”.
A spokesperson for the DfE said keeping schools open is a national priority, but added: “We recognise this has been a hugely challenging period for some schools and in particular for those staff and pupils who are self-isolating over the festive period.”
School reopening ‘under constant review’
The concerns come amid a rise in cases following a new strain of the coronavirus which scientists fear infects more children.
The government has announced a staggered return to school after the Christmas break. But following the harsher restrictions announced on Saturday, ministers have refused to rule out further delays.
Prime minister Boris Johnson said today he “wants if we possibly can to get schools back in a staggered way at the beginning of Jan”, but said: “We will keep things under constant review.”
The National Education Union today demanded schools move to online learning for the first two weeks of January. Currently some secondary pupils will start on-site learning a week later than planned.
The union has also called for education staff to be vaccinated. The i newspaper reported yesterday that government scientists have asked for the UK vaccines authority to start working on a plan for vaccinating teenage pupils.