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‘We heard the army would come in to help with Covid testing. Apparently not’. Diary of a headteacher in England

Monday: here’s the news from Boris Johnson

The alarm goes off at 6am. After two and a half weeks’ holiday, I should be feeling refreshed but I’ve been putting in 15-hour days since New Year’s Eve, when we were told we should arrange mass Covid testing in school. It feels more like the end of term than the beginning.

Tired as I am, I feel positive. If we can pull off testing for all staff and pupils, we really can help curb asymptomatic transmission of the virus and it will be great to walk the corridors feeling that they’re safe, rather than hoping half-hourly hand sanitiser will somehow save us.

I’ve set up four teams to implement plans, focusing on lateral-flow testing, teaching online, teaching in school, and welfare. I’m confident we can get year 11 safely back on 11 January and the rest of the school a week later.

After a meeting with the senior team early doors, we go straight to our online staff briefing. As the frontman here, it’s my job to sell these changes to the staff, to make them see and feel the positives. But it’s hard trying to make staff feel safe knowing several have relatives who have died of coronavirus and others have kids who are clinically extremely vulnerable. To be honest, I can’t believe they’re in – but they are and I love them for it.

Next up is the DfE webinar, focused on setting up our testing site, which for us will be in the school hall. I’m used to these things kicking off a couple of minutes late, but 15 minutes after the start time, it begins to feel as though the DfE are either incompetent or have complete contempt for the thousands of school leaders who have a to-do list running into the hundreds, all now staring at a blank screen.

When the webinar finally starts, while the presenters are perfectly clear, the presentation is just a rehash of the training materials I’ve spent the last four days mastering; largely, it’s a waste of my time. The Q&A is better. But when asked if schools will have liability if a pupil injures themselves when swabbing, they say they’ll have to get back to us. Not greatly reassuring.

There has been a lot of hype about the armed forces being parachuted in to support schools. We ask when they will arrive. Apparently, they won’t – they’ll be on a phone line in case we have a question. Helpful, but not quite the mass support we expected.

The rest of the day is taken up with establishing our test centre and supporting staff training. I leave at 6pm feeling pretty good. And then I tune in to Boris Johnson and learn – alongside the rest of the country – that my school is going to be closed to all but key worker and vulnerable pupils until at least half term.

Oh, and GCSEs are cancelled. And what is replacing them? They’ll tell us later when they’ve figured it out.

WhatsApp immediately starts pinging and within minutes, my senior team are all online for another meeting. We co-write a letter to parents and an email to staff, offering reassurance and support. I finally sign off at 10.22pm.

Tuesday: a teacher begs to come to school

I wake up to a bunch of emails from staff, and my stomach drops. I wonder how many won’t be coming in today – but when I open them, they’re just offering their thanks and saying how well supported they feel. It is a great way to start the day.

We have just shy of 10% of pupils in school today – nearly 100 – and spend the morning contacting those we consider vulnerable who we think should be attending. That’s another 4%. We have three staff awaiting Covid test results and four shielding but that leaves us with more than enough teachers to cover the sessions in school, even with online lessons taking place.

This morning, the media is reporting that teachers are 333% more likely to contract coronavirus but I still don’t have anyone saying they won’t come in. I chat to a few people and advise them to work from home. They’re thankful but they feel guilty. But then one teacher emails me, begging to be in school because he has spent Christmas completely alone and can’t bear any more isolation.

The online teaching team have surveyed parents and spend the day delivering 98 Chrome books and five prepaid wireless routers. By the end of the day, every one of our pupils will have a way to access lessons. The DfE laptops have not arrived, so we are loaning out our school ones.

This afternoon I seek confirmation from the DfE that the BTec exam scheduled for Thursday is going ahead. The official is clear that it is, so we write to parents and call each pupil to offer reassurance.

Our testing centre is now set up and ready to go, so we do a practice run and complete our first test – mine. It’s negative. Thank goodness for that.

Wednesday: we tell kids the opposite of what we said yesterday

Oh. The DfE has announced that schools may cancel their BTec exams to avoid unfairness or “unsafety”. We have some pupils isolating who couldn’t attend and it feels wrong to increase the unfairness. So we contact the parents and the pupils again – to say the exact opposite of what we said yesterday. These poor kids. I wouldn’t want to be running the country right now but if I ran my school with as many U-turns as this government, we would be rated “inadequate”.

Nipping to the loo, I notice a cluster of grey hairs on the front of my head that I’m sure were not there yesterday. I guess this is the silver lining people say comes with clouds.

Our admin team is coordinating the delivery of food hampers for pupils entitled to free school meals. We have 33% disadvantaged pupils, so that’s a lot of hampers, but everything seems to be in hand.

I meet the safeguarding team to make plans for our vulnerable pupils and families. Those most at risk are already in school but we identify 104 more families who will need visits or other support.

Thursday: the pupils are upbeat and I feel proud

By 7am, 74% of parents have given us their consent for testing, with only 0.3% saying no. This morning we are testing all staff. It runs smoothly and staff say they can’t believe how efficient and safe it feels.

I meet the parent of a school refuser. We agree to utilise this time when the school is quieter to help him re-engage. We are going to send him a personal invitation to school and give him a teacher to himself for half days for the next few weeks. The parent seems relieved.

With all the windows open, school is freezing. We are all donning coats and parents have been told that hoodies are acceptable, too. Uniform is important but so is avoiding hypothermia.

We release videos that explain the testing process to parents and do a tour of the testing site for pupils. They’re great and emphasise the point: this testing will really help to make our school, our community and our families’ homes safer. I end the day feeling proud.

Friday: a call from my partner. You’ve got to be kidding me

I am simply amazed by what we have achieved in just five days: our testing site can safely test 66 people an hour; we have a full online curriculum; we’ve seen every vulnerable pupil; we’ve safely run normal school for 15% of our cohort. Staff seem happy. I feel much better than I feared I would this week.

But then, at the end of the day, my partner calls. She has had a lateral flow test at her school … and she’s positive. You’ve got to be kidding me.

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