Scramble for lockdown school places

Schools wrestle with latest covid-19 related challenge as pupils to return to distance learning


Several Jewish schools were wrestling with the latest Covid-related challenge this week — providing on-site learning for children of critical workers or vulnerable pupils.

Schools were forced to return to distance learning after the government announced they must close in England from Tuesday until at least mid-February in order to halt the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

One primary which is run by the Jewish Community Academy Trust was faced with having to teach nearly half of its pupils in person under the critical or vulnerable categories, while two others had a third of pupils in school.

Another non-JCAT primary, the state-aided Rosh Pinah in Edgware, where infection rates in the local ward have rocketed to over 1,000 per 100,000 people, found demand for places so high that it planned to introduce a system of priority.

Rabbi David Meyer, executive director of the Jewish Leadership Council’s schools network, PaJeS, stressed that parents should not abuse the critical worker formula and warned that if too many children were in schools during lockdown, it could undermine efforts to combat the virus.

“It is the ongoing partnership between parents and schools that will be critical in supporting the needs of our children over the coming weeks,” he said.

Many Jewish primaries learned last week they would be shut for most pupils for at least the first two weeks of term because of the high infection rates in the local area.

Before the lockdown, the start of term in secondary schools had been delayed to give them time to prepare for mass testing of pupils they were required to undertake. Pupils in exam years had been due back next Monday and the remainder the following week.

PaJeS, which has been monitoring cases of children isolating at Jewish schools since the start of the academic year, found that “initially, isolations were primarily caused by teachers falling ill and rarely students,” Rabbi Meyer said.

“At the end of December term, suddenly we noticed instances of isolation in primary school caused by children who were ill — and that was absolutely the case at secondary school.”

It had warned the Department for Education that any relaxation of social distancing rules over Christmas would have an “enormous impact” if it wasn’t followed by a firebreak to postpone the return of the children to school in early January.

One school that opened for the spring term, as the government had planned, was Bury and Whitefield Jewish Primary in Manchester. Classes there resumed on Monday with just a few pupils isolating — only for the lockdown to come into effect the next day with less than 24 hour’s notice.

“We are far better equipped this time round and have worked hard today to get everything in order,” said headteacher Claire Simon on Tuesday.

School has remained open for state nursery children and the sons and daughters of key workers, as well as vulnerable pupils.

Compared with the previous lockdown, she said, “There are five times more key worker children in — basically quarter of our school.

“Last March-June we had five or six, because parents were frightened. It’s a different ball game now.”

Whereas the United Synagogue-run JCAT opened only one of its five schools for the children of critical workers in last year’s lockdown, this time it has opened four.

JCAT chief executive Kirsten Jowett said there were a “significant number requiring places, ranging from a quarter in one school to almost half of all pupils in another school”.

She explained: “We were significantly stricter in the summer, requiring two parents or sole parent families but the new government guidance is clear that only one parent needs to be a critical worker and the list of these occupations has been increased. We do have a high proportion of teachers and NHS staff across our schools.”

Rosh Pinah head Jill Howson notified parents on Monday that requests for key worker and vulnerable pupil places would amount to over a third of the school roll, but only a limited number could be accommodated.

Therefore, the school would use a points system to allocate places, giving priority to children with two key worker parents.

Andrew Rotenberg, Rosh Pinah’s chairman, said on Wednesday, “Unfortunately, the senior leadership team established that the number of children who wished to attend far exceeded the number of children the school determined it could safely take following its risk assessment. 
As such the school had no choice but to prioritise.” But Rosh Pinah would review its risk assessment periodically, he said.

The DfE said its published list on critical worker and vulnerable children was “clear about who can still attend school and we expect schools to work with parents to ensure all these children are given access to a place if required.”

DfE guidelines state that schools could also accept “those who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home (for example due to a lack of devices or quiet space to study)”.

This, in theory, could apply to many Charedi schools, whose large families have little room and no internet.

Secondary schools meanwhile hadbeen working out how to deliver mass testing, with some 10,000 tests dispatched to JFS in North-West London.

Kantor King Solomon High School in Essex would have been ready to begin testing this Thursday, headteacher Hannele Reece said, although she was “relieved that we get a little more time to properly plan”.

Thanks to the Kantor Foundation and local community support, the school was now “teaching live Microsoft Teams lessons to all students in all year groups 7 to 13. We are confident that the donations have allowed all our students access to their education and this should make this period of closure so much easier for our students than the last time.”

Where students needed extra support or resources, she said, “Then we will provide these in school so there is no reason for any student to miss out.

“It is a challenging period for all our families, many of whom have lost loved ones and we will continue to support our community in every way we can. We are especially mindful that some of our students still have live external exams next week and we will support them with those regardless.”

But she said she was pleased by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s announcement on Wednesday that cancelled A-level and GSCE exams would be replaced with teacher grades.

Last year the government was forced to backtrack after an outcry, reinstating the original grades submitted by schools and colleges and scrapping the formula used by exam regulator Ofqual to modify them (which was supposed to take into account the institution’s past exam performances).

The KKSHS head said she would “await the details of any quality assurance systems with interest and would welcome anything that ensures all schools provide accurate assessment of their student’s final grades. This seems to me to be the fairest solution for students and accepts that as schools we know our students the best.”

Students would “now be able to focus properly on their lessons and assessments in class in the knowledge that their work will directly affect their final results,” she said.

Patrick Moriarty, headteacher of JCoSS, said the announcement was “welcome — if coming rather later than would have been ideal. His indication that the system will be an improvement on last year, trusting teachers rather than algorithms, is also welcome.”

But he added, “Much remains to be clarified and, until it is, teachers and students face anxiety especially as they make decisions about mock exams, parents evenings, subject and course choices for next year and more.”

Rabbi Meyer said the DfE had generally been taking “too long” to clarify requirements.

Warning of the toll on teachers, he said, “Yet again we have seen school leaders dedicating their holidays to school planning. In reality they have not had a break for over 10 months and this must be a cause for concern”.

Schools were “more adept at delivering remote lessons,” he said, and training delivered to teachers by PaJeS in autumn would help.

But as well the educational needs of pupils, the mental health and wellbeing of children had to be taken into account “and this is an area where PaJeS and the community wellbeing initiative will continue to work closely with schools and pastoral leaders”.

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