Does the school system have long Covid?

We are currently finalising the report for the second phase of our Leading in Lockdown research. Integral to this stage of the research were interviews with 42 Assistant and Deputy Headteachers in primary and secondary schools. We asked them about their experiences of the pandemic and how it has impacted on their workload, well-being and career aspirations. 

One of the key framings for the report came from these interviews – the sense of the pandemic changing over time, with the demands on schools and school leaders also changing. We now understand the pandemic as having three distinct phases: 

Phase one – March to August 2020 – included the first national lockdown, the tentative reopening of schools in the summer term, and the exams fiasco in August that year. The main challenges in this period included providing home learning, delivering food, and ensuring pupil welfare and safeguarding, while also providing support for staff at a time of fear and uncertainty.

Phase two – the 2020-21 academic year – was described as even more difficult. The logistics of opening schools safely was a significant challenge, due to the need for social distancing, masks, sanitised spaces, mass Covid tests, Track and Trace, pupil bubbles and so on. The pressure to focus on education and ‘catch up’ increased through this phase, and leaders oversaw a changing mix of classroom based and online learning. In secondary schools, national exams were cancelled again, so leaders were required to oversee the production of Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs). This was a huge logistical task, made more difficult by the fact that few believed it was fair to pupils or schools. As schools moved through this second phase, the sense of staff coming together – an initial ‘blitz’ spirit – began to wear thin, not helped by negative media headlines about the work of schools. Continuing high levels of parental, pupil and staff anxiety required a significant focus on communication and pastoral support.

Phase three – September 2021 to spring 2022 – has seen schools open continuously, while England saw the progressive removal of all Covid-related restrictions despite a surge in infections in early 2022. No interviewees agreed that schools were back to ‘normal’ in this phase, but views were evenly split on how the situation compared with earlier phases: around a third thought things were better; a third thought they were worse; while a third thought their work was equally challenging, but in different ways. Among the first group, this reflected the removal of most Covid-related requirements and the resulting ability to refocus on educational improvement. Among the second and third groups, this reflected three main challenges: first, Covid-related issues required continual attention, in particular due to very high rates of staff sickness and absence coupled with limited access to supply teacher cover, making it hard to move beyond crisis management; second, with the return of Ofsted inspections and national exams, interviewees felt under pressure, coupled with frustration that the realities of Covid had not been acknowledged nationally; third, addressing the long-run impact of Covid, including variable learning gaps and a tidal wave of pupil well-being and mental health concerns.

Because this third phase has not ended, we have come to the view that the school system has long Covid. According to our interviewees, this situation is largely unrecognised by politicians and system leaders whose talk of “back to normal” belies the situation in most schools. 

The report of this second phase of the research will be launched in early June.

A free webinar on the 9th June at 1600 BST will be chaired by Nick Brook, Deputy General Secretary, National Association of Head Teachers. Dr Tony Breslin, Director, Breslin Public Policy Limited; Alistair Goodhead, Assistant Headteacher, King Edward IV School, Lichfield and Claire Evans, Headteacher, Eaton Valley Primary School, West Bromwich will respond to the report and our presentation. You can find the information and link to the booking here.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash