Evelyn Forde, Copthall School

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Evelyn Forde, the headteacher of Copthall School in the Mill Hill area of London. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

This article titled “A headteacher’s diary: ‘First day back and we have 13 staff absent’” was written by Evelyn Forde, for The Guardian on Saturday 8th January 2022 10.00 UTC

Evelyn Forde, the headteacher of Copthall school in north-west London and vice-president of the Association of School and College Leaders, shares her diary from the first week back at school in 2022 as she grapples with staff absences due to Covid and reassures students anxious about lost learning.

Tuesday (4 January)
First day back after the Christmas break. It’s a staff inset day, with Covid testing for three year groups. That first day of term is always filled with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. I arrive at 6.30am as I want to make sure everything is ready to welcome staff back, and to check that our testing centre is ready. We’re good to go, but then at 7am my cover manager tells me we have 13 staff absent.

Within this figure there are some long-term absences but the significant majority is made up of staff who are having to isolate because they tested positive for Covid. Towards the end of last term we were averaging 10-13 staff absent a day, but I had really hoped the start of the new term would be better. I’m worried how I’m going to run the school and the impact it will have on staff and student morale. It feels like we are going all the way back to square one.

A normal school day, with testing for the remaining two year groups. Did I mention that yesterday we had five students test positive for Covid in the test centre and a stack of emails from families telling us their daughters had tested positive? I work with my senior team to put a plan together to cover for absent staff and to ensure that we have everything in place for those students isolating so they can remote into their lessons on Thursday. The sense of doom prevails as the number of absent staff rises from 13 to 14 and the list of supply teachers gets longer.

I’m worried about how I’m going to pay for the spiralling supply costs and everything else we had budgeted for. But I look for the silver lining as I greet students at the start of the day and walk the school. It’s one of the nicest parts of the job.

I come upon three year 13 students who want to speak to me about their January BTec exams. They are really anxious about staff being absent and worried what will happen if they are off with Covid when they are meant to sit their exams and how this might impact on their grades. I offer reassurances that it will all be OK, because that’s what we do as heads, but I’m worried too. I do some follow-up work on exam guidance and a final check to see if we can cover any additional absences tomorrow.

The staffing challenge continues. I arrive at 7am, the same time as my deputy, who comments: “Are we able to cover even with so many out?” I consider it a win when I realise we are stable with 13 staff out and one who has confirmed that she will come back tomorrow as her isolation period ends and she feels well enough to return. Hurrah!

We still have to juggle cover for those staff who are too ill to remote in. It is definitely a challenge, but with only one day to go it feels as if we have coped reasonably well. I am also feeling positive that a call from a retired teacher yesterday offering to come in and teach will mean my students will have a specialist in front of them next week to cover a long-term absence. But I am a realist and know things could change at any time. We check our remote learning policy and verify that all students remember their log-in details.

We are increasing our communication to parents to remind them that their daughters need to take a lateral flow test twice a week as I am worried that we could end up with huge swathes of students out. Today we had 11 confirmed Covid cases and 23 waiting for their results to come back.

Feels like we are turning a corner today with only (I say only!) eight staff out today. We’ve still got seven supply teachers in, so my meeting this morning with my finance director is going to be interesting. Confirmed cases of Covid among the student body has risen slightly, with 13 positive results and 26 now awaiting results, so the challenge of providing remote teaching will remain for some time to come.

As I reflect on a week which began with hope and optimism only to find myself worrying whether we would be able to manage with such high staff absences, I feel as if while we have ended the week in a much better position, I’m still anxious about the weeks ahead and what that holds for schools and colleges. I listened to the radio while driving in this morning to hear that the armed forces have sent 200 personnel into NHS hospitals across in London to plug staff shortages and while we don’t have an army of retired teachers to plug our staff shortages, what has become evidently clear is that we are a profession that is agile, flexible and committed to making sure that we do our best to maintain teaching standards despite the challenges we face.

Let’s see what Monday brings …

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