25 June 2021

Dear Parents & Carers,

I would like to thank all members of our school community for their support and good sense in what has been a very difficult week for schools in County Durham. Whilst we are excited about the opportunities that we can offer in the next academic year, it is also fair to note that schools have been brought back to the present with quite a bump this week as Covid rates rise. You will be aware that many of our partner primary and secondary schools within Durham are closed, or have a combination of year groups and bubbles self-isolating. At a point when we hoped to be opening up more in terms of activities, clubs and celebrations, schools are having to identify close contacts, call families with that unwelcome news and, in many cases now, revert to remote learning for large numbers of their students. Whilst it is excellent for society that the connection between transmission and serious illness seems to have been greatly reduced, the impact on children and schools is starting to mirror the very difficult experiences prior to Christmas 2020. A difficult year has the potential to end with yet more disruption for children in terms of their education which is deeply disappointing. It would be good to hear members of the Government expressing their concern about this more frequently.

As a school, we are fortunate to have been spared much of that difficulty to this point, but it is clear that there is the potential that we and other County Durham schools will be adversely affected in the final three weeks of term. To exemplify that point, between March and May we had 5 positive cases linked to the school. They all occurred within a 6 day period and, after review, by the local Public Health Team were considered to be a consequence of community, as opposed to school, transmission. The cases were in Years 8, 10 and 13. There were no other cases linked to the school during that 7 week half-term and we managed to make excellent strides, both in the classroom and in our extracurricular provision. Importantly, all of the students returned to school in good health.

At time of writing we have had one positive case in Year 8, which I shared in my most recent update (available here) and two additional cases, one in Year 7 and one in Year 12. It is evident that numbers have the potential to rise further, with Local Authority guidance now being that anyone identified as a close contact by school or via a sporting association or friendship group can access a PCR test. They do not need to be symptomatic. This is a good development but, inevitably, could lead to more students needing to self-isolate along with their close contacts as asymptomatic students are identified more accurately. We are awaiting the results of a number of PCR tests on this basis and it is likely that we will have to ask more students to self-isolate next week. I sincerely hope that we avoid further disruption for members of our community, but it seems highly likely that the number of confirmed cases will rise for us and other local schools.  

I hope this details helps to explain the situation that other local schools have faced and makes clear how quickly such a scenario might develop in any institution. The other factor impacting upon a number of schools has been confirmed cases amongst school staff. We are very fortunate that there have been no positive cases amongst our teachers and support staff. We are very thankful for this.

Whilst we were very disappointed to reintroduce face coverings, the guidance given by public health officials was based upon a desire to keep schools open and to use all of the measures available at a local level to limit further transmission. That detail is included in the following guidance that was shared with all Durham schools this week:

Covid-19 Contingency Framework: Education and Childcare

The recently published Contingency Framework describes the principles of managing local outbreaks of COVID-19 (including responding to variants of concern) in education and childcare settings.

Education settings are required to ensure their outbreak management plans are updated to outline how they would operate if any of the measures outlined in the contingency framework were recommended for their setting.

Directors of Public Health (DsPH) and PHE Health Protection Teams (HPTs) can recommend additional measures are implemented in individual education and childcare settings, or a small cluster of settings as part of their outbreak management responsibilities.

For example:

  • to help manage a COVID-19 outbreak within a setting
  • if there is extremely high prevalence of COVID-19 in the community and other measures have failed to reduce transmission
  • as part of a package of measures responding to a Variant of Concern (VoC)

Face Coverings:

One of the measures outlined in the framework is to advise face coverings are temporarily worn more widely in the setting (this may include face coverings in communal areas for pupils and students) and/or classrooms (for both pupils, students and staff while allowing for reasonable exemptions for their use).

Due to the significant increase in Covid-19 cases in education settings, Amanda Healy (Director of Public Health) has requested that any education setting with confirmed cases will be asked to reintroduce the use of face coverings in school. This will help to reduce the risk of transmission within the education setting.  Please continue to implement prevention measures, promote the uptake of the Covid vaccination for those eligible and report any Covid-19 cases through the local reporting process.


I hope that the above detail sets out the difficult position that schools are currently in and also highlights the need for greater urgency in Government thinking regarding education. It has been quite surreal to observe Matt Hancock and other members of the Cabinet explain that we are on target for all restrictions to end on 19th July. That is wonderful if accurate, but jars slightly with the current experience in many schools. Schools are under increasing pressure to manage multiple positive cases and families are having to adjust to self-isolation and further disruption to their lives. 4.2% of secondary school students nationally are currently isolating as a consequence of being close contacts or confirmed cases and that figure looks likely to exceed 5% for England next week. It will be higher in some areas of the country. Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, commented this week that:

These statistics show a large and extremely worrying increase in the number of children absent from school for Covid-related reasons. It clearly reflects the climbing rate of coronavirus cases in society in general and the prevalence of the Delta variant.

It means that many pupils and schools are experiencing yet more disruption after more than a year of turbulence and it is a grim way to reach the closing stages of the school year. 

Schools have no choice other than to hang on until the end of term endeavouring to manage this situation, and we can only pay tribute to them for everything they are doing in these extraordinarily difficult circumstances. 

However, the government must think urgently about how to reduce educational disruption in the next academic year after the summer holidays. 

We simply cannot have another term of large numbers of children spending time out of school because of coronavirus. Schools are doing their very best to provide high-quality remote education to pupils who are absent but this can never be a complete substitute for the interaction of in-class teaching.

This is a crucial and pressing matter because it also has implications for the shape of next year’s public exams in GCSEs, A-levels and other qualifications.”

This is a fair reflection of the increasing difficulties faced by Durham schools in particular and it would be very helpful if we were offered some clear thinking about September 2021 as early as possible. In a week in which students have been encouraged by the Education Secretary to sing a (very well meaning) new ‘national anthem’ called ‘One Britain, One Nation’ which identifies how strong we are together, it would have been helpful to see him sharing his thoughts on the current difficulties facing schools. I am keenly aware of his patriotism and also his belief that exams will go ahead as normal in a year’s time; I am less certain, however, about the next three weeks and what is planned for September. It would be very encouraging if some planning were shared now or before the end of term, as opposed to in late August or just before the start of the new academic year.

 

I would like to thank all those who have been involved in music, sport and the Duke of Edinburgh awards at school since March. We have had to make some adjustments to our plans for the final three weeks of term and I would like to formally recognise the hard work that students and staff have put into making things work effectively for as long as they have.

 

We have our Year 8 parents’ evening on Monday 28th June, with appointment bookings closing tomorrow. Mr Wright will contact all Year 7 parents next week with details of how to book for the Year 7 consultation evening scheduled for 5th July.
 

Thank you for your ongoing support and forbearance in a potentially very difficult time for students, parents, carers and all those working within education.

Mr O’Sullivan