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Bury St Edmunds school St Edmund's Catholic Primary grappling with staff absences due to rising Covid cases



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One school was forced to suspend its full lunch offer and teaching and admin staff have had to help with cleaning due to disruption caused by Covid absences.

St Edmund's Catholic Primary School in Westgate Street, Bury St Edmunds, has seen up to 15 members of staff off over the past couple of weeks as it contends with 'a definite rise' in coronavirus cases, said executive head Maria Kemble.

Nationally, Covid is impacting on staffing at schools up and down the country, with children in several settings - although none we are aware of in Suffolk - being asked to wear face masks again.

Maria Kemble, executive head of St Edmund's Catholic Primary School, said the government was not taking into account the impact absence has on the smooth running of a school
Maria Kemble, executive head of St Edmund's Catholic Primary School, said the government was not taking into account the impact absence has on the smooth running of a school

Government statistics released this week reveal the rate of state-school staff absences across England is on the up, with an estimated 8 per cent (42,000) of teachers off and 6.8 per cent (49,000) of teaching assistants and other staff absent on July 7. However, the government no longer collects the reason for absence.

Mrs Kemble said over four days St Edmund's was unable to offer a school meal - except for those entitled to free school meals - as so many kitchen staff were off, so the rest of the school had to bring in a packed lunch. And she added trying to cover when teachers were off was 'difficult' due to the lack of supply staff as well.

She said staff absences over the past couple of weeks had been mainly due to them testing positive for Covid.

St Edmund's Catholic Primary School's executive head Maria Kemble. Picture: Mark Westley
St Edmund's Catholic Primary School's executive head Maria Kemble. Picture: Mark Westley

"We have had kitchen staff, teachers, teaching assistants and cleaning staff off," she said. "We are now up to 15 members of staff off over a two week period. Some won't be back before the end of term.

"The difficulty is the government are expecting schools to operate as normal and not taking into account the impact absence has on the smooth running of a school.

"Continuous short period of absence may not seem significant individually, but can amount to a large number of staff off which will impact on the teaching and learning of pupils.

"It also increases workload for staff in school who try to do their best to cover and ensure all the essential jobs are completed.

"Our teaching staff have had to get hoovers out to help with cleaning classrooms, admin staff have helped serve lunch and clean toilets - it's been all hands on deck and everyone mucking in. That is not sustainable over a longer period and if as is being predicted, the winter rates are even worse, this will have serious consequences for schools."

She said parents had been 'very understanding and supportive' over sending their children in with packed lunches.

She said she was 'concerned' schools would be left facing 'very difficult decisions' about keeping all children learning in school with no acknowledgment from the government of the impact of the ongoing Covid infections.

Dr Tim Coulson, chief executive officer of Unity Schools Partnership. Picture: Gooderham PR
Dr Tim Coulson, chief executive officer of Unity Schools Partnership. Picture: Gooderham PR

Tim Coulson, chief executive of Suffolk-based Unity Schools Partnership, said Unity had seen an impact on staffing levels - in keeping with the whole of 2022 - but school leaders and staff were 'doing an admirable job of providing the best possible education at all times'.

He said: “We are all aware of the headlines around rising Covid-19 cases, but our schools are still managing to have the best possible last few weeks of the school year.

“We have seen schools make up for lost time with trips abroad, residential visits, full school sports days, end-of-year art exhibitions and much more enjoyed by staff, parents and pupils alike."

Alison Weir, headteacher of Howard Community Academy in Bury St Edmunds, said: "Covid has been a huge disruption over the past year with staff absence and lack of supply teachers. We have started to see a second wave of staff being affected by Covid for the second time, but thankfully not to the same extent as previously so far.

"Attendance rates for pupils have been significantly affected by Covid absences, but since the government changed the way we report Covid related absences it is difficult to attribute absences specifically to Covid.

"We are seeing families also choosing to opt for term-time holidays due to the increased cost and lack of affordable holidays in the school breaks, which again impacts on attendance and is disruptive to education."

Alison Weir, headteacher at Howard Community Academy, a primary school in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: Mecha Morton
Alison Weir, headteacher at Howard Community Academy, a primary school in Bury St Edmunds. Picture: Mecha Morton

The data also showed pupil attendance was 86.9 per cent on July 7, down from 89.4 per cent on June 23.

Commenting on the attendance data, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the association of school and college leaders, said: "It’s extremely concerning to see attendance rates for pupils falling rapidly again in today’s figures, and absence rates for teachers, leaders and support staff continuing to rise.

"It is impossible to know how many of these absences are directly due to Covid, as the government has made the decision to no longer collect this information. However, given the rising rates of infection across society, it is highly likely that Covid is playing a significant role in these worrying figures.

“A government which already appeared to have washed its hands of responsibility for these rising rates is now even more distracted by its own internal politics. In the meantime, education continues to be disrupted, and children and staff continue to fall ill, often multiple times."

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Mr Barton is a former headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "School is the best place for children to be, which is why our Schools Bill currently going through parliament will bring about significant changes to the attendance system, improving consistency across the country and helping to tackle persistent absence.

“We are committed to driving forward work to get children back on track after the pandemic, including through our revolutionary National Tutoring Programme – with over 1.5 million courses already started – and targeted support for whole areas of the country where standards are weakest.”