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Has anyone thought about covid and special schools?

Despite the reams of guidance for schools dealing with covid, special schools appear to have been all but forgotten. Why does nobody care, asks NAHT national executive Marijke Miles

I think the education sector is coping magnificently with the challenges of covid. But people have almost no ability to imagine the fairly unique challenges of operating in a special school. 

There are more than 1,000 special schools in this country, and more than a third of a million children with education, health and care plans. It’s not a minority issue. But every time people talk about schools, no one mentions special schools. 

Our colleagues in mainstream education are complaining that there are too many updates to government guidance. Meanwhile, there have been precious few updates for special schools since 2 July. It’s like hearing other people complaining that they have too many sausages on their plate. And, meanwhile, I’m looking at the barbecue with my plate almost empty.

The government expects me to tell parents that their children will be safe, and they are as safe as they can possibly be. But the refusal to allow flexibility with rotas and blended learning has withheld a powerful tool in enhancing the safety in special schools.

Medical scrubs and visors

We are typically very short on space after years of expanding numbers on roll without the appropriate extensions to facilities and sites.  

My smallest classrooms are under 30m squared. We can have up to 16 children and adults in there, for six hours at a time. Now tell me that there’s social distancing. 

And then there’s the idea that the teacher must be two metres from the children at all times. In my school, that generally means either standing in the corridor or in the playground. I have hardly any classrooms where the teacher could be two metres away from the children.

The public thinks that giving intimate care to children is just about toileting and medical procedures. But, in our school, every single interaction with a child is intimate, by its very nature. That is the unique privilege and joy of the job.  

My staff are all in medical scrubs and visors. We’ve had some charitable donations to cover this, but the costs have been enormous. And that’s before we even start talking about disposable PPE and cleaning. 

Staffing predicaments

In our sector, it is common to have to do procedures that have been classed as “aerosol-generating”. For example, special schools often provide suction for children with cystic fibrosis, or other conditions where you have to drain fluid from the lungs.  

Public Health England guidance on this makes it nigh-on impossible to manage this within special school settings. At the moment, there are children across the country who need these procedures, and who cannot be in school until clearer cross-sector guidance has been released and the capacity created to enable its safe delivery.  

Many special schools have NHS nurses to work with students with the most complex needs. But, if a nurse is told to self-isolate, or is sick, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get another nurse instead. So that can leave schools without a nurse for a period of time if there is no capacity in the system.  

But it’s not just nurses. Imagine that my physiotherapist says she thinks she has symptoms. If I send her home for a fortnight, nobody can have physiotherapy for that time.

Every day, I’m forced to make really painful decisions between meeting a child’s needs and taking extreme caution over potential infection control.  

Gut-wrenching decisions about priorities

Honestly, it’s like a brick in the pit of my stomach, weighing up the potential health risk to everyone – which is uncertain and unknown – against the very concrete risk of taking a cautious approach.

My guess is that special schools will end up with reduced capacity, by sheer virtue of the effects of self-isolation. We’re not usually in a position to bring in supply teachers, as other schools might. Staff are not as interchangeable when there are specialist functions to be carried out. And, of course, any delay in test results just exacerbates that.

Again, it means these absolutely gut-wrenching decisions about priorities, on a day-to-day basis. And this hasn’t been officially acknowledged as a possibility, so there’s no decision tree for that. 

On a given day, if I can’t run my school at fully capacity safely, I have to make decisions about who can be in. So I’m exposing myself to risk and censure. Really, you need the wisdom of Solomon, every day.

We also have issues with school transport. Mainstream school buses have high ceilings and natural spacing; they’ll often have two decks. For special schools, our children generally come to school in a minibus or a taxi. It’s a very different scenario, in terms of spacing: I’m sure the person-to-space ratio is much smaller. Children are riding side by side. And many children with special educational needs and disabilities are exempt from wearing face coverings. 

Nobody cares

Our buses require escorts: they’re the backbone of the system. It’s a minimum-wage job, for two to three hours a day, so a lot of the escorts are pensioners, and therefore vulnerable. The buses can’t work without the escorts, and you can’t rustle up escorts overnight. So there’s a real fragility in the system there.

What we need is an urgent recognition that special schools are just that: special. And we need more specific, tailored guidance with a much more realistic acknowledgement of the inevitability of the various sector-specific scenarios we face.

Our local-authority staff are working flat-out to support us and they, too, need and deserve the clarity at national level to understand how best to manage the challenges. And we need a very significant injection of funding, to facilitate an appropriate response to this crisis, which does not compound the disadvantages of our children or leave special schools and local authorities in financial hardship for years to come.  

I loathe hearing myself recite this litany of woes. I love my job. I bounced back into school at the start of term. It’s the best job in the world. It’s the privilege of a lifetime to do it. But we do feel forgotten – and our parents and families absolutely do, too.  

When you care for a child with additional needs, no matter how mild or severe, you often feel that you are in a battle with the authorities. That can make parents and carers very angry. But who can blame them?

I’ve seen it with my own eyes: the world doesn’t have a clue what we do. And I’m not sure they really care. I feel more lonely and invisible than I’ve ever felt in my whole career. It’s not a nice place to be.  

This blog was first published on the TES website.

First published 10 September 2020