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On the frontline - but with no protection, and under more pressure than ever amid the coronavirus pandemic. That is the situation facing thousands of teachers around the country, as they keep their doors open to children of children of key workers and vulnerable families - but in return are receiving little support or guidance.
Headteachers and school staff admitted to HuffPost UK that they are experiencing high levels of pressure and stress as they strive to do their best for children despite their own anxieties.
“In the first couple of weeks of this crisis, I remember having points where I thought: ‘I can’t do this’ and I have never felt like that in my career,” Tehmina Hashmi, executive headteacher at Bradford Academy, told HuffPost UK.
The mounting pressures are taking their toll on school workers who are putting their own health and that of their families at risk by potentially being exposed to coronavirus by coming into regular contact with children whose parents work for the NHS or are other key workers.
And many parents and families have a newfound respect for everything schools are doing amid the pandemic and have described them as “the fourth emergency service” with their dedication on the frontline.
One teacher who has just recovered from coronavirus, which she believes she contracted from school, told HuffPost UK that although the reason for shutting schools to the majority of pupils was to curb the spread of the virus, maintaining social distancing is difficult, particularly with young children.
Children are naturally very tactile and not good with giving people personal space so staff are having to educate them on social distancing.
She said: “Teachers and people who work in schools are putting themselves in a vulnerable situation by going into schools, particularly as we don’t have protective equipment such as masks and gloves.
“Children are naturally very tactile and not good with giving people personal space so staff are having to educate them on social distancing.
“The other issue is that children are more likely to be asymptomatic so are likely to carry on coming into school as they would not know if they had Covid-19.”
The teacher revealed that she became ill with coronavirus symptoms during the last school week before the government imposed the shutdown of schools until further notice.
And she told HuffPost UK how she was devastated and on the verge of tears as she desperately wanted to remain at school and help her colleagues ahead of the impending crisis.
“I began suffering from chest pains on the Wednesday and I told the assistant head.” she said. “I was in the office almost crying as I wanted to stay and help.”
“At first, I thought it might just be caused by anxiety and stress. But the following day, I still had chest tightness and was experiencing breathing difficulties so my headteacher sent me home.
“It was really difficult as I could not say goodbye to the children and I don’t know when I will see them again.”
The teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, described how her coronavirus symptoms included experiencing tightness of the chest and breathlessness and being bed-bound for about a week.
She was also on her own in her flat during her illness as her flatmate moved out to protect herself. “I went from being in a room with 30 little people daily to being completely isolated.” she said.
She told HuffPost UK that most teachers are prepared to take the risk of going into schools knowing that they will probably end up getting ill with coronavirus.
“Teachers and schools just want to do as much as they can for the children.” she said. “But there has been a lack of direction and unity from the government so each school is individually trying to decide what to do.
“My main fear is of children sitting there isolated at home just staring at a screen with no social interaction, especially for children who don’t get that support from families.”
Jim Nicholson, headteacher at Mellor Primary School in Stockport told HuffPost UK there have been mixed messages from the government causing confusion over which children should attend school.
“The ultimate aim is to have as few children as possible in the school building. There is a potential for transmission as the children who are coming in have a higher risk of being exposed to the virus as their parents might work for the NHS or other frontline settings.
“The pressures that schools are under is that they could be working alongside children who potentially have the virus.
“The children do not always understand or grasp social distancing, particularly the younger ones.
“These are risks that staff in my school and schools all over the country are taking.”
Nicholson, who is also branch secretary for the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT), said headteachers have had to make difficult decisions regarding staffing to protect school workers with underlying health conditions themselves or family members at risk.
They have also had to make judgment calls about staff with young children who may have relied on grandparents or nurseries for their childcare as they can no longer use these for looking after their children.
However, he told HuffPost UK he has been heartened by the amazing support from his colleagues at school and the understanding of the parental community.
Running a school is like having a huge extended family ... we are the fourth emergency service as we are supporting key workers during this crisis and we are key workers ourselves.” Jim Nicholson, headteacher at Mellor Primary School in Stockport
“We have had to put a lot of communication together at very short timescales.” he said. “But families have been very supportive and we have had low numbers of children in school fluctuating between four and 20 a day.”
Nicholson told HuffPost UK that he is constantly hearing examples of teachers going over and beyond the call of duty – such as one Stockport headteacher who went out to buy nappies and provisions to support members of her community.
He said: “The hardest thing was saying goodbye to our children not knowing how long we are going to be distanced from each other.
“Running a school is like having a huge extended family. Getting it right for our communities is of paramount importance to us.”
He added: “We are the fourth emergency service as we are supporting key workers during this crisis and we are key workers ourselves.”
Worrying about the children who are not in the school building is the biggest fear for Tehmina Hashmi, executive headteacher at Bradford Academy, which has a primary school and a secondary school on one site catering for children aged two to 19.
The area of Bradford the school serves is highly deprived and is one of the poorest wards in the country and around half the children are on free school meals.
“My biggest anxiety is for the kids who are not in the building.” Hashmi told HuffPost UK. “Usually, we would see them every day and notice if their families were not coping and could put support in place.
“So instead, we are doing a lot of telephone calls and doorstep visits. We cannot just step back – they are our children.”
Concerns about families in poverty who are struggling to feed their children has led to the school carrying out food hamper drops and going out in a minibus to drop off sandwiches to children at some estates.
“We have been giving them a bag containing a sandwich, an apple, a drink and a bagel. But for some families, that is a godsend.”
My biggest anxiety is for the kids who are not in the building ... we cannot just step back – they are our children.” Tehmina Hashmi, executive headteacher at Bradford Academy
Hashmi told HuffPost UK that headteachers are grappling with multiple worries and confessed that one of the biggest challenges is trying to manage your own anxieties together with other people’s while trying to run a school.
“We realised very early on that we were heading into something long term and I felt a lot of anger and frustration at first as I felt the government were looking at it from an economical and financial perspective.
“Everybody is working together to charter unnavigated waters.”
Hashmi added that while in the past, teachers have been slated in the public domain for having six week holidays in the summer, she believes people are now starting to appreciate all they do.
“Now is the time that schools are really showing what they do and how they give above and beyond and we are getting acknowledgement of that.
“It is the kids who are important at the end of the day and we will put everything else and all our fears to one side for them.”
Siobhan Collingwood, headteacher at Morecambe Bay Community Primary School in Lancashire, had to self isolate after three of her staff came down with Covid-19 symptoms.
She said even before schools had shut down to the majority of pupils, their pupil numbers had dropped by a third and they were down on half their staff as they were either in high risk groups or displaying cold-like symptoms.
She told HuffPost UK that they are keeping in touch with families via the school Facebook and have had lots of positive feedback from parents for everything they are doing.
She said: “What has become clear is that we are called a ‘community’ primary school and that’s exactly what we are. The vast majority of our parents have been giving us overwhelmingly positive messages that they are delighted with the support they are getting from school.”
She says that while teachers are at risk of exposing themselves to the virus, they are taking precautions by maintaining social distancing and taking the temperatures of children as they come in.
“Yes, we are exposing ourselves to risk,” she told HuffPost UK. “But not as much risk as our colleagues in the NHS.
“We are public servants fortunate enough to have a guaranteed salary and security of job.
“I do worry about my staff getting ill. I am glad I had identified the staff in high risk groups and sent them home immediately as three of their colleagues later came down with what appears to have been Covid-19 symptoms.”
“Yes, we are exposing ourselves to risk. But not as much risk as our colleagues in the NHS." Siobhan Collingwood, headteacher at Morecambe Bay Community Primary School
Collingwood added that the biggest thing this crisis has shown her is the strong commitment schools have to their communities and the “glue” this provides for families.
Andy Mellor was headteacher at a primary school in Blackpool until recently and is now national wellbeing director for the Schools Advisory Service.
He told HuffPost UK that the coronavirus pandemic is the biggest challenge he has had in 30 years of being in education.
His wife is a primary school teacher and he says he has been deeply impressed by the way schools have dealt with the crisis and the courage being shown by teachers, school leaders, teaching assistants and other school staff.
“School staff are engaging closely with the community but are not getting the protective equipment.” he said. “They are doing a valuable job at risk to their own health and the health of their families.
“It is a challenge for them going into that situation every day and potentially exposing themselves to the virus. It is also difficult for the families of teachers as they are having to bring isolation procedures into their home.”
Mellor added that he is full of admiration for those working in the NHS as well as in schools and says there needs to be a watershed moment in how we value these services going forward.
“The way the education community has come together shows the sort of community spirit that will eventually see this virus beaten.” he said.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) told HuffPost UK they recognise that NHS staff must be the very first priority for scarce protective equipment for coronavirus which is in short supply.
However, she added that schools are also in the frontline and their safety should also be given urgent consideration.
“We are pressing for Covid-19 testing to be available in schools as soon as it has been made available throughout the NHS.” she said.
“We will continue to ensure that Department of Education advice on distancing and our own advice on safety precautions and staff and student presence in schools is followed.”
She added that all schools must have adequate supplies of soap, hand towels and sanitiser and that there were some situations where school staff will need protective equipment all or some of the time, particularly when working in some special education needs and disability settings.