We are now in the third academic year affected by the current pandemic.
It has generated a lot of extra work, which is necessary to mitigate against the spread of infection within schools and their communities.
Recognition needs to be given to the fact that school staff have been in work when there was no vaccine available — putting them at significantly increased risk of infection.
At Glastry College we have been relatively unscathed in comparison to some other schools; this may be partly due to the rural location of the college and partly to the procedures and protocols we have put in place to reduce the risk of spreading the infection: each year group has their own assigned entrance, each morning students have their temperature taken, hands sanitised and masks issued if necessary.
This takes up a significant amount of time each morning, particularly for staff in middle and senior leadership. As all their other ‘normal’ duties still need to be done, this has significantly increased the length of the working day for many staff.
Additionally, there is a one-way system for student movement around the college and windows in corridors and classrooms are partially opened to ensure adequate ventilation.
Despite all these measures, staff and students are still contracting Covid-19, resulting in prolonged periods of absence.
Undoubtedly, the greatest strain on schools is the considerable difficulty in finding substitute cover for absent teaching staff.
My vice principal can spend many hours each evening making dozens of phone calls trying to find a substitute teacher who is actually available. This is frequently in vain. We are slightly fortunate that we have three substitute teachers who only work in Glastry College, but they are not necessarily available every day.
To date we have managed — but only just — to keep the college open for all our students. On numerous occasions, had one more member of staff been absent it would have been impossible for classes to run as normal.
The fact that we have avoided having to send year groups home is due largely to the substantial number of classes covered by either myself or my vice principals. This is not sustainable in the long-term.
It is impossible to predict what lies ahead. However, what is certain is that school is the best place for children to be, not only for educational reasons, but more importantly for their social and emotional wellbeing.
Any decision made to close schools en masse, if it is deemed necessary to do so, must take this into account.
Should such a temporary closure be decided upon, it must be timed to have maximum effect on the rate of infection whilst causing the absolute minimum disruption to learning.
It is also vital that schools and parents are given sufficient advance notice to enable them to plan accordingly.
Alan Hutchinson is principal of Glastry College in Ballyhalbert