Published: 06:00, 16 November 2020
| Updated: 21:32, 16 November 2020
Nine schools in Kent have decided to close for two weeks as the number of coronavirus cases reported continues to rise.
Latest statistics show a fifth of schools and academies in the county have reported cases to their local authority.
Alan Brookes, Kent Association of Headteachers
Of the 685 schools across Kent and Medway, 157 have reported cases to the local authority. Head teachers are not forced to report cases so the number, which includes academies, SEN and pupil referral units, could be much higher.
In Medway, 33 of the 101 schools in the Towns reported cases up until 4pm on Wednesday, November 11. That's 33.2%. As of Friday, November 6 at 1pm, 124 of the 584 establishments in the rest of Kent had told Kent County Council of positive cases, but a dozen more have been reported on KentOnline in the last week.
When a case is reported, students within that bubble must self isolate. But seven schools are now understood to have decided to close to all pupils for two weeks.
Leaders at Thistle Hill Academy on the Isle of Sheppey, The Orchard School in Canterbury and Dartford Science and Technology College have already announced closures for two weeks and on Friday, parents of children at Sholden Primary School received a text to collect children ASAP due to health and safety.
Fulston Manor School's executive head teacher Alan Brookes, who is also the chairman of the Kent Association for Headteachers, had already called for more support for schools before the decision to close.
He said: "The government says schools are an absolute priority but they don't seem to be demonstrating that by any attention to detail or with any of the support we think is essential if we're going to move forward successfully.
"While there are significant disadvantages for children and young people if schools do close it is also true that remaining open will delay the fall in the R rate and may, as a result, mean that stricter measures need to be introduced elsewhere and that the end of the lockdown period may be extended.
"What is clear is that the ongoing disruption to education does call into question the fairness of next summer’s examinations as currently proposed by the government and that urgent attention needs to be paid to the development of contingency plans that recognise this issue."
Teachers can refer to official guidance provided by the government on the Department of Education's website.
It reads: "Returning to school is vital for children’s education and for their wellbeing. Time out of school is detrimental for children’s cognitive and academic development, particularly for disadvantaged children.
"This impact can affect both current levels of education, and children’s future ability to learn, therefore we need to ensure all pupils can return to school sooner rather than later. For the vast majority of children, the benefits of being back in school far outweigh the very low risk from coronavirus.
"During the autumn, schools are asked to minimise the number of contacts that a pupil has during the school day as part of implementing the system of controls outlined below to reduce the risk of transmission. If schools follow the guidance set out here and maximise control measures, they can be confident they are managing risk effectively."
The government advice includes minimal contact between students, enhanced cleaning measures and face masks for children in secondary school.
Despite the best efforts, students in Sitingbourne have been hit particularly hard with every secondary school in the town reporting a member of staff or pupil with a positive case.
Westlands School has been among the worst hit with 19 cases as of last Tuesday.
But head teacher Simon Cox thinks total closure of schools should be an absolute last resort. He said: "There is no doubt that the upsurge in cases in Sittingbourne is reflected in our schools and causes anxiety across our community.
"However, we are still significantly below some other parts of the country so we need to keep things in perspective, and take advice from Public Health England.
"For children, even those with underlying health conditions, Covid rarely poses a significant threat to health. Schools provide a structure and routine for children which generally benefits their wellbeing.
"Parents who work to support our key services and economy need their children at school and these reasons, as well as the more obvious fact that children will miss out on their learning, I think it is important that schools remain open, albeit with modifications and protection of the most vulnerable.
"Here at Westlands School our view is that total school closure should be an absolute last resort."
The need to stay open is echoed by the head teacher of Langton Boys in Canterbury who says you can't make a school Covid-secure and it's cost thousands of pounds to try.
In an opinion piece for KentOnline Ken Moffat said: "I am strongly in favour of keeping schools open, but am keenly aware that we have to do things very differently in order to make this happen safely.
"We estimate that the total cost of introducing new measures to keep our community safe, in line with government instruction, is approximately £20,000 and the government, at the moment, is not prepared to reimburse us a penny of that.
"Ultimately, the fact that we have only had four confirmed Covid cases in school since the pandemic struck suggests what we have put in place is both worth it and as robust as can be."
Sandwich Technology School is another to close its doors for two weeks.
A letter to parents revealed there are four cases amongst the student body that have required students and staff to self-isolate and eight cases have affected the wider school community, of which the school has not needed to react according to PHE advice.
The letter, sent at the weekend said: "As we have already informed you, we have had to ask students in Year 8 and Year 7 to self-isolate due to Covid-19 cases within their year group. This weekend we have heard that there is now another case in Year 10, so Year 10 students now also need to self-isolate."
Of the school's 75 teaching staff, 37 are now also required to self-isolate – some of these are as a direct result of the cases in school and some are for reasons outside of school.
This means the number of lessons being covered by non-specialist teachers has risen to about 50%.
The letter said: "Our nearest Secondary School, Sir Roger Manwood’s, which is experiencing similar issues, has reached the same decision."
The letter from Sandwich Tech added: "I am sure you are aware that the number of infections in Kent has recently dramatically risen in all districts across the county.
"In Thanet, where a good proportion of our students live, this has been particularly acute.
"The weekly cases per one hundred thousand in Thanet is 443.9, which compares with an England-wide figure of 266.7.
"Currently, it has been reported that the R-rate for Kent is amongst the highest in the country. Therefore, it is highly likely that more cases within our community will have occurred this weekend that we would learn about tomorrow morning and that there will be more cases in the coming days.
"It is, unfortunately, now obvious that we do not have the capacity to open safely and to continue to provide quality education within school."
Sir Roger Manwood's School has been asked to comment.
Greenacre Academy in Chatham has also announced it is to close for two weeks due to a rising number of coronavirus cases.
Head teacher Shelley Bridger has written to parents and carers of pupils explaining the decision follows the closure of various year groups over the past nine days, and three further cases among staff and pupils over the weekend.
And children at Joy Lane Primary School in Whitstable have been told to stay at home until at least Tuesday, December 1, because some pupils and some staff have tested positive.