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Experts consider the future of teaching during the ongoing pandemic, as schools across Sittingbourne deal with virus


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A little over a week since schools returned fully for the first time since March, and it is clear the complex issue of educating children through the ongoing pandemic has not been fully resolved.

In the past few days, four schools in Sittingbourne have had to send pupils home to self isolate, after a number tested positive for Covid-19.

Now the government has announced a tightening of restrictions in response to a spike in confirmed cases across the UK, it looks likely the virus will continue to affect the running of schools throughout the autumn term, with bubbles having to self isolate if students test positive.

After the chaos surrounding exam provision and the increased attainment gap between rich and poor students, education experts are thinking carefully about how schools can feasibly operate with minimal disruption as we continue to navigate the pandemic.

Is transmission risk low in schools?

Despite Gavin Williamson's insistence that the risk of catching coronavirus at schools remains low, one molecular medicine expert has taken issue with the education secretary's conclusion.

Professor Martin Michaelis, of the University of Kent ’s School of Biosciences, has spoken out against the government for using infection data from schools open in June and July to try and prove a low risk of transmission in schools.

Professor Martin Michaelis, the University of Kent
Professor Martin Michaelis, the University of Kent

The biologist said the conclusion made, using the Public Health England data, does not support the secretary's statement.

He said: "This data doesn't make much sense in the context, because these schools ran at a drastically reduced capacity, and we're mostly talking about pre schools and primary schools.

"I think there is a trend to reassure parents and pupils to go back to school, and you try to find evidence to convince them to come back.

"I can somehow understand that, but in the end it becomes quickly obvious that this is not appropriate representation of data."

The professor added: "I completely agree that schools should be kept open, but you're not careful they will contribute to the spread - there's no way around it."

South Avenue Primary School in Sittingbourne is one of the schools with pupils having to isolate.
South Avenue Primary School in Sittingbourne is one of the schools with pupils having to isolate.

Will more school bubbles have to isolate?

Currently schools are operating in social 'bubbles' - if a single person in that bubble tests positive then that entire group must isolate for 14 days under Public Health England guidelines.

In theory this protects the rest of the school pupils and teachers from also having to isolate.

But Professor Michaelis believes the strategy is missing one key ingredient to reduce the spread - regular testing.

He said: "You need to test people regularly because the virus is transmitted when people don't show any symptoms, when they don't know they're ill.

The School of Science and Technology Maidstone, welcoming its first ever cohort of Year 7s earlier this week. Picture: VIAT
The School of Science and Technology Maidstone, welcoming its first ever cohort of Year 7s earlier this week. Picture: VIAT

"If you had quick simple tests and you were able to test every teacher and student once a week, it would be much better than our current situation."

The biologist added that he believes it is likely we will see more school and year group bubbles having to isolate in the coming months.

He said: "As long as the virus is spreading and children or teachers come in to the school and is infected, the risk of transmission, of outbreaks, it of course high.

"Even with the best schools and best practices, you will be unlucky.

"For the time being this is how it is, because we are in this pandemic."

Peter Read, an education adviser, does not think bubbles work in secondary schools
Peter Read, an education adviser, does not think bubbles work in secondary schools

Are bubbles enough?

Peter Read, an independent education adviser and former headteacher, is of the belief that the bubble system is not enough to protect secondary school pupils.

He said: "I don't think bubbles work in secondary schools - there are too many connections outside the bubble.

"If there is somebody inside the bubble with an un-diagnosed condition, spreads to 180 children in the year group, going to 180 homes, it doesn't work.

"We already know bubbles on transport do not work, particularly when we've got children in bubbles from four different schools travelling on a bus."

"It's going to fail completely in some places and schools are inevitably going to close..."

There were warnings last month from a Thanet councillor who said school bus journeys could risk 'bursting' bubbles unless robust transport plans were put into place.

Bus companies across the county announced additional cleaning measures and reduced capacity ready for the school term to begin, with one company saying that where different schools travel together on the same bus they should sit in school groups.

One Aylesham dad has spoken out this week after his son's school bus was so packed pupils had to stand in the aisle, with many not wearing masks.

Mr Read doubts that the measures provided for school children across the county are enough to prevent the risk of spread: "It's not working - however I'm not sure what does work. So perhaps the question ought to be is this the least worst approach to the matter."

The lifelong education practitioner added: "It's going to fail completely in some places and schools are inevitably going to close."

School pupils from Canterbury crowding to leave the bus in the afternoon
School pupils from Canterbury crowding to leave the bus in the afternoon

The fear of catching coronavirus in school has even prompted some parents to consider keeping their children at home.

Mr Read, who ran an education advice service until last year, said a number of parents have already been in contact with him.

He said: "They're not really asking for advice, they've just said 'Help, we're fearful.'

"I've been told of a considerable number of families who are withdrawing their children completely from school and home educating - not because they believe in home education."

Can remote teaching work?

Stephen James says online teaching can work
Stephen James says online teaching can work

With the prospect of education being further disrupted by future two-week isolation periods, thoughts are turning to ways of minimising the effect on pupils' learning.

During lockdown, teachers across Kent grappled with ways to keep pupils engaged and on track, resorting to a mixture of education packs and, in some schools, online video lessons.

As disruptions to the autumn term look likely, one teacher is hoping to offer a digital solution.

Stephen James, from Folkestone , spent the summer running a virtual school academy to help children catch up with their learning before the new school term began.

Founding the pop up Invicta Academy school with Anna Firth, national voluntary director of the Conservative Policy Forum, the pair succeeded in getting 20,000 pupils from key stage 1 to key stage 4 signed up to classes in August.

Mr James believes online learning can be successful. Picture: Radar AI
Mr James believes online learning can be successful. Picture: Radar AI

They now believe the experience of running the school, which was also expanded to Surrey, London, Lancashire and Oxfordshire, puts them in the right place to help schools needing guidance on making online teaching work.

Mr James said: "Schools need to have the provision to go straight from a Monday morning with a bubble being burst, to a Tuesday morning, teachers effectively delivering those lessons online.

"At the moment we're still in that trial phase, I think lots of schools are still trying to find their way with remote learning."

The community interest company (CIC) is now hoping to provide a package to schools which would easily allow teachers to teach online in front of their classes.

He said: "What I want to say to schools is we've made the mistakes, come to us and we're happy to help you and guide you in the way with that.

"In my view there's no excuse - there's a tried and tested model now and it's almost just not good enough for teachers or headteachers to turn around and say 'we can't do it.'

"The government have thrown a lot of money at the the catch-up fund - a billion pounds. Where is that being spent?"

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