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UK headteachers concerned over children "ramming" primary schools despite lockdown

(Xinhua)    10:07, January 14, 2021

LONDON, Jan. 13 (Xinhua) -- Since the start of 2021, primary schools in England have been reporting a big increase of pupil-attending compared to the previous national lockdowns, raising alarm among headteachers and other teaching staff.

A survey by Teacher Tapp, an app asking teachers three questions each day and then allowing them to find out how other teachers answered the questions, found that one in six primary schools in England reported that 30 percent or more of their normal roll was attending in person this week, far more than in the first week of the lockdown in March last year.

The rise in numbers has concerned teachers, and a number of headteachers have complained about their schools being "rammed".

VERY HARD THIS TIME

At Cooper Perry Primary school in Stafford, northern England, head teacher Emily Proffitt has been forced to make a waiting list for children to attend the school in an effort to keep numbers manageable for teachers on site.

"We're being very sensitive to how we're approaching it. We are saying only take up a place if you need one. And I think the more we move through this, the more we're going to have those conversations (with parents)," Proffitt told Xinhua.

"Unfortunately, I know I'm not the only school, but schools are having to prioritize children. If they are a frontline NHS (National Health Service) worker's child or a police officer's or somebody that desperately has to be out in the community, then they do get a place above somebody whose parent is working at home, regardless of their key worker status," Proffitt said.

On Jan. 5, the British government ordered the closure of secondary and primary schools in England after the region moved into a third national lockdown, with the exception of children of critical workers and those deemed vulnerable, who were allowed to physically go to school each day.

This has meant that many children are still eligible to attend, including those classed as vulnerable by the British government because of special needs or social support, and children whose parents work in critical sectors, such as food distribution or national infrastructure.

But the government has also expanded its offer of in-person school places in England to children who lack digital devices for remote learning and to those without quiet spaces or workplaces in their homes.

"It's very different this time, (how) the parents (have) approached it. We were told that actually COVID-19 is worse this time and that the new strain is moving quicker. And actually, primary schools are not safe, even though we were told that they were safe, and that we could stay open," Proffitt said.

"Unfortunately, I think parents now are in a position where they've done lockdown. They've done home schooling, they know how difficult it is, and they know that school is the best place for a child. And I think that's partly the reason we're seeing more children in school," Proffitt said.

Meanwhile, the number of key workers appeared to be much larger than in the previous lockdowns.

"Employers are desperate to keep people working. So key workers are brimming with key worker letters from all sorts of different employers, which means it's very difficult to fit everybody in," said Proffitt.

In a recent statement, Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: "If the (British) government is serious about having more children at school during this lockdown it should reduce bubbles and groups sizes to minimise transmission risks."

The statement came after experts pushed the government to narrow the definition of key workers and for them to provide increased financial support or furlough to those who could not work due to childcare.

After the detection of a new coronavirus strain in Britain made headlines across the world, the British Office of National Statistics (ONS) released figures showing a rapid spread in COVID-19 infections among school-age children.

For Vicky Batten, an early years teacher who has been continuing to teach in Cooper Perry Primary school, it is nearly "impossible" to keep the children socially distanced.

"It's difficult, because obviously, the safety of the children is the most important thing," Batten told Xinhua.

"It's impossible to socially distance when you've got four, three and five year olds, in your care, they don't stay apart from their friends, when they're playing, it's not in their nature to if they fall over and hurt themselves, you know, they want to be comforted by the grown-ups that are looking after them. So we from the beginning, have known that social distancing within our children is nigh on impossible," Batten said.

THIN GOVERNMENT GUIDANCE

As unions and experts call on the government to re-evaluate the rules over who can and cannot attend school, Proffitt is concerned that the guidance this time is also "thin".

"Last time, the guidance was very clear that there was two-meter distancing that we needed to keep children separate to keep them in their seats, all of that was in place," Proffitt said.

"This time, the guidance is very, very thin on the ground. We've got nothing that is suggesting that -- last time we had bubble sizes of 15. This time, we're being told to make arrangements. And so it's far too open to interpretation. And I think that's making our jobs incredibly difficult," Proffitt said.

England is currently under the third national lockdown since the pandemic began in the country. Another 45,533 people in Britain have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in the country to 3,164,051, according to official figures released Tuesday.

Another 1,243 have died within 28 days of a positive test, bringing the total number of coronavirus-related deaths in Britain to 83,203, the data showed.

To bring life back to normal, countries such as Britain, China, Germany, Russia and the United States have been racing against time to develop coronavirus vaccines.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Wen Ying, Du Mingming)

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