Growing concerns over large numbers of children in Sheffield schools compared to first lockdown

Up to five times more pupils are attending some schools in Sheffield compared to the first lockdown prompting concerns over their education and safety.

Tuesday, 19th January 2021, 4:45 pm

The government guidance currently states that vulnerable children and young people can attend school alongside those with at least one parent or carer who is a key worker, but children should stay at home where possible.

However, the demand for places and the numbers of children attending schools in this lockdown has increased, leaving parents and union groups increasingly concerned about the situation.

One parent said: “Ultimately this is down to parents’ individual morals and can’t be means tested.

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The demand for places and the numbers of children attending schools in this lockdown has increased.

"I am finding juggling working from home along with home schooling so difficult but it saddens me that we will have to do this for longer because people aren’t playing ball.

“Their children are gaining face-to-face teaching from a professional whereas I am googling what terms mean and fumbling through.

"I think the difference was that in the first lockdown more people were scared of the virus and schools were childcare only, not teaching.”

The parent said she had written to the headteacher of her daughter’s school, Eccesall Primary, expressing concerns about the number of children attending – which has increased from 40 in the first lockdown to more than 200 now.

Some schools in Sheffield are seeing up to five times more pupils attending compared to the first lockdown.

The schools has emphasised the need to only send in children when absolutely necessary and on the days needed.

The parent explained that a third of pupils were now attending the school, some of which were pupils with parents at home.

The same scenario is being echoed across Sheffield, as some pupils appear to be going into school who have a parent at home.

Other parents have spoken of their concerns that some may be taking advantage of the situation ‘as an easy option’ or ‘because there are no rules, just guidance’.

Sheffield City Council issued a letter to parents and carers clarifying that they should keep their children at home where possible.

Sheffield Council issued a letter to parents and carers on January 18, clarifying that they should keep their children at home where possible and outlining the criteria for those who were eligible to be in school.

A council spokesman said: “The reason for sending the letter to parents was because demand for places and the numbers of children attending schools in this lockdown is higher than the numbers attending in the first lockdown which started in March 2020.

“All schools are closed except for children who are vulnerable or whose parents are critical workers.

"When this lockdown was announced the government issued guidance on eligible children in both these groups and, in both cases, the eligibility criteria was wider than that used in March 2020.

“The government then reissued its guidance on eligible children of critical workers after this lockdown started, and emphasised that ‘parents and carers should keep their children at home if they can’.

“We felt it important to draw this to the attention of parents, not least of which to reinforce the stay at home message more broadly.

"We understand parents, staff and teachers’ concerns around this and are working with all concerned to ensure risks are minimised and support if provided.”

The letter stated that keeping the number of people in schools as low as possible was important because ‘hospital admissions are rising in Sheffield so it remains vital that we do all we can’.

It adds that although government guidance advises that the children of parents and carers who are critical workers may be eligible for a school place, this does not equate to an entitlement.

Parents and carers should only use the offer of a school place only if it is ‘crucial’, considering alternative arrangements where possible.

Schools are helping parents and carers identify who is eligible and entitled to go to school and evidence may be required to demonstrate that a parent or carer’s work is critical to the Covid-19 response.

Both the National Education Union and UNISON wrote to education secretary Gavin Williamson earlier this month, raising concerns about the effect a significant extension to the number of pupils allowed back into school would have on coronavirus transmission rates.

The unions argued that they were ‘left in the dark about scientific evidence driving the decision-making on school openings’.

They believe that the higher numbers of children in school would disproportionately increase the numbers attending in deprived areas, potentially driving up the risk of transmission in poorer areas.

Jon Richards, UNISON head of education, said: “No one wants to see pupils’ education disrupted but it’s vital there’s total confidence in school safety.

“Staff and the wider community need to be sure that increasing the numbers through school doors isn’t going to drive up infection rates.

“The majority being asked to go into schools will be support staff, many of whom are in higher risk groups.

“Unions need to see the science behind government decisions so anxious school staff are assured this is based on safety rather than politics.

“The government mustn’t create further risks for people living in the poorest areas.”

Although some schools have seen a surge in the number of children in school this lockdown, some have retained relatively low numbers.

It has been reported that around 20 children are going in for classes at High Hazels Academy, in Darnall.

Similarly, at Ecclesfield School there are approximately the same number of children in the building as the first lockdown - around 15-20 out of 1,700.

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a digital subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Nancy Fielder, editor.