Covid cases in Bedford are rising ‘sharply’ – leading to staffing issues at primary schools and in early years education.
And some members of staff have been forced to take time off work three times after testing positive for Covid, leaving education settings ‘struggling’.
At a meeting of the Children’s Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee on Monday (March 21) the council’s chief education officer, Ben Pearson, said that Covid cases are rising in schools again.
“We’ve seen quite a sharp increase in case numbers, not in one or two schools and not in one or two areas, but across the piece and particularly in our primary and our early year settings,” he said.
“I’ve spoken with our early help colleagues today, and we are really concerned about that cohort of employees, and obviously the cohort of children and young people, but particularly our primary and our early years staff.
“They are currently working with an audience who are 100 per cent unvaccinated, they’re the only workforce in the country that are doing that at the moment.
“Our early years staff will obviously continue to do that because we know vaccinations won’t be rolled out to younger ones.
“I have heard, sadly, some anecdotal stories of members of staff who have now tested positive three times, and been off work for the third time.
“So I’m concerned about our staff, children, and young people in our schools as we see cases increase,” he said.
Mr Pearson said the increase in numbers is putting pressure on staff, including senior leaders.
He added that some headteachers are almost permanently covering lessons due to staff absences.
He also said that there was a lack of guidance from the Department of Education about Easter and post-Easter and what that looks like in terms of Covid in schools.
“There will be no tests, we understand, in schools, there won’t be any available for schools or for children,” he said.
“So how will schools manage when they’re not able to identify children who are, or are not, positive, and staff,” he asked.
“Very, very soon after Easter, we get into the exam period as well, and I am very worried about the lack of clarity, the lack of guidance from the Department at the moment about how we should manage that.
“Exams are only eight weeks away now,” he added.
Harmesh Bhogal, chief officer for children’s services, said that early year settings are also being impacted by the increase in Covid cases,
“Currently, 16 settings are impacted and they’re struggling, understandably, with staffing ratios,” he said.
“Children’s centres are open, which is great news, and with the increase in the most welcome, better weather, there will be an increase in activities and groups with a new timetable being prepared for after Easter.
“And with the weather improving, hopefully more outdoor activities, etc. will take place.”
Committee chair, councillor Hilde Hendrickx (LibDems, Newnham Ward) wondered if there may be closures in early years settings if they struggle with staff ratios.
“If there isn’t enough staff available, what is the fallback position?” she asked.
Martin Purbrick, interim director of children’s services, said: “Settings are open, but it’s tight in some settings.
“There is always the risk that some settings will have to close for a short period of time.
“We’ve been fortunate in Children’s Services and in early years, so far, as most infection has been staggered, there has been enough staff in when someone is off and they recover and then someone else is off.
“So that’s how things have worked so far, but that’s really just an element of luck.
“There was always the risk that somewhere will close, hopefully, we’ll see numbers drop soon and that won’t happen.
“But there is a risk,” he said.
by John Guinn
Local Democracy Reporter