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Huge rise in number of pupils at schools in Kent during the third lockdown

Four times as many pupils area being sent in to school during this lockdown compared to the one last year.

Statistics seen by KentOnline suggests last week 20,000 pupils attended compared to just 5,000 last Spring.

David Whitehead, CEO Potential in Everyone Academy Trust

The country was put in to a national lockdown last week which forced all schools to close.

While only vulnerable and children of key workers are able to attend, there is no limit on the number for each school.

Government guidance states:"We know that every school will have a different number of children of critical workers who need to attend. It is important that on-site provision is provided for these pupils, and there is no limit to numbers of these pupils who may attend and schools should not limit attendance of these groups.

"This is because we are reducing overall social contact across areas and the country rather than individually by each institution."

David Whitehead, executive head teacher of 10 schools in the county, said it was between five and 10% of pupils in the first lockdown. But this time it's averaging 25-45% in each of the schools. He said: "It's really difficult.Although the rhetoric is still school's are safe, the transmission rates are still high in primary schools. "With the numbers of transmission still high at the moment we've already closed two bubbles in the last week. The risks are still there at the moment even though the numbers are slightly reduced "It's adding extra pressures because they're teaching on site and producing remote learning education resources for children who are working from home. In effect it is doubling the workload for the teachers.

"The lockdown messaging has not been very clear. There have been several high level incidents in government that has had an impact on the public in large.

"People are worried about losing their jobs and that's leading to people classing themselves as critical workers where they didn't before.

"Over the weekend the messaging has changed again and really people to think carefully about sending their kids to school so we'll see what impact that has this week. "It's down to the parents to think carefully if they do need this provision but a review of the list would be helpful.

One school in Whitstable has seen more than six times the number of pupils this time round.

Jacqui Spinks, head of St Alphege CE Infant School, said:"We have on average around 40% of our children in school. This is a mix of vulnerable pupils and those of critical workers. This number fluctuates across the week as we have been flexible around our critical workers shift patterns.

Jacqui Spink
Jacqui Spink

"This is considerably higher than our numbers in March, where we only had around ten children accessing the school (6%) on average each day. This considerably reduced the risk to both our staff and our community. It is worth noting that the infection rate in Kent in March was considerably lower than it is now."

Ms Spinks said the change to the list of key workers is the reason for the increase.

She added: "Previously this was for people who were "critical to the Covid response" only. The latest guidance now contains nearly every job, including those who are working from home.

"They have also changed the guidance that both parents need to be key workers, to now needing to offer spaces to families regardless as to whether only one or both are key workers.

"Many of our parents chose to keep their children at home during the first lockdown, but I think now we are entering the third lockdown period, people are really struggling to balance their work commitments and remote learning, so they are opting to send them in this time around, regardless as to what their job roles are."

Asked if she feels parents sending their children in - even though they aren't vulnerable or the children of critical workers - are putting her staff under additional pressure and at extra risk of Covid, she said:"That is a difficult one.

"The more people we have gathered in the building will obviously increase the risk of the virus spreading. Again, it comes back to the government's handling of this pandemic. Our parents are only doing what the government is telling them is 'safe'."

"I think now we are entering the third lockdown period, people are really struggling to balance their work commitments and remote learning..."

Jenny Ashley-Jones, head teacher at Reculver Primary School in Herne Bay, said: "We have, on our busiest day, 27% of pupils.

"We've got a mixture of children of key workers and vulnerable children, who are either under social services or have got an educational healthcare plan.

"It's a lot because it means that in some classes we've got 20 children plus. Our average class sizes are usually between 25 and 30, so we're approaching an average class size with some.

"What we're doing is grouping the children into one year-group bubble so we can have half of our staff in and the other half working from home.

"If you've got so many children in school, you've got a lot of community mixing as well as mixing of children whose parents are critical care workers. We aren't able to socially distance children in a classroom when we've got numbers that are so great. It's a real challenge at the moment.

"My colleagues in other schools locally are finding similar issues.

During the first lockdown the school had 15 pupils a day on average. This time there are requests for 140 places.

Reculver Primary School head teacher Jenny Ashley-Jones
Reculver Primary School head teacher Jenny Ashley-Jones

Ms Ashley-Jones continued: "If you've got one working parent and one non-working parent, you're still able to access a place at school. There's something different about this lockdown - I don't know why - and they're accessing those places.

"People are far more willing to apply for it this time than last time.

"We're trying to socially distance in the class where possible, keeping children in year-group bubbles and people are in masks when they're on site - but when you have up to 20 children in a classroom, it's very tricky to do all of these things.

"We're trying to follow the guidance of the medical experts - who say we must not go out and mix - and balance that with the Department for Education who say we must have key workers in, which is difficult as they conflict.

"We're doing everything in our powers to keep things safe. It's a challenge."

Kent County Council carried out a survey of the 600 schools in the county. 490 responded and the average attendance was 12%. The highest was 44%

This comprised 18% attendance in primary schools, 2% in secondary and 33% in special schools.

Latest government guidance says schools should remain "open to vulnerable children and young people and the children of critical workers only".

Children who have to self isolate or are extremely clinically vulnerable should stay at home.

Schools are also advised to chase parents when their children should be at school but authorise absences during the lockdown - they will not be penalised.

Critical workers are defined as people whose work helps the coronavirus or EU transition response including those who work in health and social care and only one parent in this role is enough for the children to be sent in.

Schools can ask for proof and parents should keep their children home if they can.

For the latest coronavirus news and advice, click here.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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