By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan
Kent schools will face a ‘tough time’ to stay open between now and the Christmas holidays, say local education chiefs.
More closures have been forecast before the end of 2020 as the county experiences a rapid rise of Covid infections in the 13 districts, particularly in Swale and Thanet, which have some of the highest rates in the country.
Matt Dunkley, who is the corporate director for education at Kent County Council (KCC), says he ‘sympathises’ with around 600 local headteachers who face a ‘maze’ of Government guidance in managing any outbreaks.
The Whitehall advice has been described as ‘confusing’ and ‘challenging’ and earlier today, he warned: “At the moment actual school closures are fairly rare, but the challenge of the next few weeks may change that.”
More than 150 schools have reported coronavirus cases to both KCC and Medway Council since the pandemic started nine months ago, but closure notices have begun to rise, with at least nine recorded in the last fortnight.
Speaking to a panel of councillors at KCC’s education committee earlier today, Mr Dunkley also said: ” This second wave of the pandemic has hit both schools and the department much harder than the first.
“The logistical challenges the council and schools are now facing are upon us in quick order, including choices around closing year groups and classes.
“Some schools have had to close very suddenly because of a rapid rise in infections.”
Mr Dunkley said headteachers and the county council were ‘struggling’ to avoid the ‘domino effect’ of school closures which has led to some staff from other schools having children at home that they need to look after.
“Between now and Christmas our schools are in for a tough time to keep as open,” said Mr Dunkley.
He added: “We are all hoping that moves to some kind of vaccine will offer respite in the new year.”
Swale and Thanet have the highest infection rates in Kent, both have more than 500 cases per 100,000 people, which has also seen several schools affected in these areas.
Ursuline College in Westgate has shut its doors to all pupils, more than 700 in total, until December 1 while Sittingbourne’s Fulston Manor has also closed after some students and 10 teachers tested positive for Covid.
Fulston Manor School’s executive head teacher Alan Brookes, also the chairman of the Kent Association for Headteachers, said school heads continue to ‘grapple’ with the ‘contradicting’ Government guidance.
He said: “It has already been an enormously challenging time for schools and becoming ever more so now, particularly in Swale and Thanet.”
However Boris Johnson’s Government says it continues to ‘prioritise’ the long-term future of children and will not be closing schools or universities.
On November 4, The Department for Education said: “It remains very important for children and young people to attend, to support their wellbeing and education and help working parents and guardians.
“Senior clinicians still advise that school is the best place for children to be, and so they should continue to go to school.”
But they added: “Education settings and childcare settings must continue to take swift action when they become aware of a confirmed case of coronavirus in their setting.”