As the head teacher at Copthall School in north London, Evelyn Forde spent the final weeks of 2021 dealing with major staffing shortages as the omicron variant of the coronavirus began tearing across the city. But Tuesday, as the all-girls secondary school reopened its doors, 13 of 120 teachers were absent.
One day later, another teacher tested positive.
“We were just hanging on for dear life and just thinking, ‘It’s going to be fine when we come back in January,’” Forde said, “only for the variant to kind of just spread like wildfire.”
Such scenes were repeated across London last week amid a record surge in coronavirus infections, even as the government has held back from imposing a national lockdown, choosing instead to “ride out” the wave.
The calculus in London, as in the rest of England and much of the United States, appears to be the same. Many parents, politicians and school administrators are desperate to keep schools open after two years of chaotic openings and closures. But the variant is raising questions about those hopes, at least in the short term.
In England, worries about staffing are dire enough that retirees — often older and therefore more vulnerable to severe illness from the coronavirus — have been urged to return to duty. Schools have been advised to merge classes to plug staffing gaps. And in a country that has long resisted the types of precautions taken in countries like Germany, secondary schools are now required to test all their students twice a week — adding to the burden of smaller staffs.
Even then, some parents question whether students should be back at all, given what they fear are inadequate precautions and promised changes in ventilation systems that they say are both too little and too late.
But in England, unlike in the United States, the national government can decree the rules for all public schools, and although teachers unions continue to voice concerns about a lack of protections, they have generally been compliant. Parents also have little choice but to go along; they can be fined for keeping their children at home over COVID worries.
In some ways, the latest days of uncertainty feel like a repeat of last January, when another coronavirus wave, driven by the alpha variant, shuttered schools for weeks after they had opened for just one day. Still, there is more hope this time that the seemingly milder omicron variant will not wreak the same havoc and that schools can muddle through with just a few changes.
And for many people, any risks are outweighed by indications that children not only fell behind in school but that many also suffered devastating mental health issues.
Beyond the new testing requirements, the government is now requiring secondary school students to wear masks not only in the hallways but also in classes. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi also promised to begin distributing ventilation systems to thousands of schools and to increase funding to help pay for substitute teachers.
Still, the challenges are clear.
Education staff were more likely than other workers to test positive for the coronavirus late last year and have to isolate, according to numbers from the Office of National Statistics, and in London, many schools had struggled just to make it to the holidays amid staff absences.
Since many schools reopened last week, more than one-third of about 2,000 schools surveyed in England had 10% of their staff absent on the first day back, according to a poll by NAHT, the school leaders union. And 37% of schools polled said they were unable to find enough substitute teachers to fill in for those who were ill.
Most schools had just two days to get the new government guidance implemented before students began to return to school, which led many to stagger their return to allow for testing their entire student bodies.
Trade unions representing most education staff in England have called for additional government support. Their demands include ventilation systems for all of the nearly 25,000 schools — a far greater number than the 8,000 pledged — as well as more people to help with tests and more money to pay for substitutes.
“Schools and colleges cannot on their own reduce the threat posed by the virus, and they need from the Westminster government more than rhetoric about the importance of education,” the organizations said in a statement last week.
Philippe Sibelly, an art teacher at a small international school in central London, said the school had to close two days early for the holidays because of so many staff and student absences.
When school restarted Tuesday, Sibelly said there were no staff absences, pointing out that most teachers had contracted COVID last month or over the Christmas holidays. But now many students are out sick or isolating at home after testing positive.
During earlier waves of the pandemic, the school had gone beyond the measures recommended by the government, remaining closed to in-person teaching for a longer period of time and installing better ventilation systems. But Sibelly said that those decisions had often been met with pushback from some parents.
“From the beginning of COVID anyway, whatever we do, well, we can’t win because it’s a very polarizing issue,” he said, though he added that most parents seemed to be on board with the current approach.
Some educators are hopeful that the worst may be behind them. Nick Soar, executive principal of the Harris Federation of Schools, who oversees two state-funded schools in central and north London, said they had staggered toward the holidays with many staff and student absences.
He credited school staff with making heroic efforts to keep the school open, including having some teachers who had been exposed to the virus or had asymptomatic cases deliver classes remotely from their homes to full classrooms with a supervising adult.
But, he said, it seems like things have turned a corner, with testing so far revealing just a handful of cases and far fewer absences than December.
“It feels like the ghost of Christmas COVID has gone, even though we are crossing our fingers,” Soar said. “We’ve learned if we pull together, we cannot overreact, and make sure that great teaching and exciting teaching takes place, even while everything else around you might seem to be falling apart.”
Public health experts, however, have cautioned that the full effect of social mixing over the holidays has yet to be seen.
That — and what they consider a haphazard government approach — is enough to add to some parents’ pandemic worries.
Kirsten Minshall, who lives in southeast England, questioned the government’s reactive approach and the last-minute testing guidance that meant some schools, including his children’s, suddenly delayed openings, posing challenges for working parents.
“It doesn’t feel like really anything is ever adequately put in place to deal with what is happening at the moment,” he said. He pointed out that a full year after schools opened and shut in one day, the country’s leaders are still having the same conversations about masking, ventilation and distancing in schools, when better precautions could have already been put in place.
Now he fears it is only a matter of time before someone in his family catches the virus.
“We have this clash of a desire for everything to be as it always had been, versus the new reality,” he said.
Chaela Cooper, whose children go to school in the southeast of England, said she is also frustrated, and frightened. She would like to see mandatory masking at all age groups since most children under 12 years old are not yet able to get vaccinated, as well as better ventilation systems.
“If we have to live with this virus, we have to mitigate for it,” she said. “Otherwise what you are actually saying is live with death and illness.”