‘We’re down to two maths teachers. The head of maths is almost in tears’: diary of a headteacher’s week | Schools

Monday: the 10pm email you don’t want to receive

Today is the first day for two weeks that every child has been able to attend the school. Finally the last few who were required to self-isolate could return. Like many schools in the area, last week we had asked year 8 pupils to work at home due to the sheer numbers of teachers ill or self-isolating. When 16% of your teachers are not in the building, trying to find enough cover is a challenge – cover teachers are in short supply.

It means we cannot cover all duties around the building and it’s simply not safe to have our normal numbers of children on site. We do what we can – some teachers deliver lessons to sixth formers at home online but this isn’t possible for younger children who need some in-class adult supervision.

At gone 10pm a parent emails me to say her year 9 son has tested positive for coronavirus. When I woke at 3am and checked my email – as you do – and there it was. I could go downstairs and log on to the school system to start the track-and-trace process but who would I call at this time? The boy started showing symptoms on Sunday so would have been contagious on Friday and Saturday.

Tuesday: an explosion of harassment

I get in early, start looking at classroom seating plans and teachers who might be affected because of their proximity to our year 9 boy with Covid on Friday. It’s two hours until anyone at Public Health England will answer my call. I enlist the early arriving pastoral team, who start phoning parents to inform them that their children will need to self-isolate.

Once I run through the precautions that teachers have taken, such as distance from the student, well-ventilated classrooms and wearing face masks, only one member of staff needs to self-isolate but nearly 40 pupils do.

It feels as if I’ve done a whole day of work before 9am and I start my weekly online assembly on the theme of the week, kindness. What it’s really about is online bullying and harassment. In an average week there would be eight to 10 reported incidents of online bullying or harassment. Last week it was 63 counts. Nearly half of it comes from the year 8 pupils working at home but this is still an explosion.

Going through the logs, the hatred being directed between children is frightening and I fear it reflects society’s growing permissiveness on social media of anger and rage. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia – slurs and name calling in a deliberate attempt to hurt and alienate, and usually wrapped up in a “He’s my mate, sir, it’s only a joke” excuse.

When I finally get home, I see that [the education minister] Nick Gibb has suggested schools take Friday 18 December as an inset day so they do not spend Christmas Eve dealing with track-and-trace issues. Some news channels are reporting this as teachers having the day off, and Twitter is awash with enraged headteachers. An inset day is a full staff training day, not just for teachers but for all support staff too. It takes considerable preparation, and asking us to throw one together in the middle of a pandemic is extremely unhelpful – to us and to parents. Instead of the usual ranting on Twitter, I fall asleep at 7.30pm, half dead.

Wednesday: monsters who turn out to be human

Kids don’t listen. My morning is taken up poring through pages of messages by three year 7 boys who have decided to inversely respond to my assembly. They have sent inappropriate messages to nearly every single person in their class either asking for nude pictures, actual sex acts, wanting a fight or calling them every racial slur they can muster. When one child’s mum responds on behalf of her daughter, the abuse intensifies and they ask for her address so they can come down and firebomb them.

It is hard not to laugh, though, at the three smallest, most frightened-looking boys in the world when they are brought to my office to explain their behaviour. They are terrified and simply cannot comprehend the upset they have caused. I simply would not have credited these usually quiet and respectful children with what they have done.

Leaving my office, one meekly asks if he can still have his Christmas dinner and I learn that the one at school is the only one he gets. On Christmas Day last year he had a Pot Noodle for breakfast and some jam tarts for supper. Suddenly the little monsters are human again. Yes, he’ll get to eat his Christmas lunch, but he will sit with me, not his friends.

Thursday: the bells ring out at Christmas dinner

It is school Christmas dinner day and the logistics of serving nearly a thousand children are a challenge even when it’s not a global pandemic. Each year group has its own 45-minute sitting and as many staff on duty as we can muster. Christmas tunes blare out and as I look around from my own table (it is just me and the three year 7 boys), staff simply look drained and shattered. Their smiles for the children are thin, few can find the energy to engage in conversation. Wizzard’s famous Christmas song just seems to emphasise the misery.

Later, my chair of governors calls to ask if I’d thought of using 18 December as an inset day and it takes me half an hour to explain why not.

Friday: six maths teachers down. I am sick, but I have to go in

I almost don’t go in; I have a terrible head cold and can barely breathe. Every bone in my body hurts and when I stand up I get so dizzy I have to sit down again. I sound like a martyr when I say, who else is there? Because I know I have a very good deputy and the building won’t fall down without me in it. But at the moment I genuinely feel that I would be letting down every member of staff who drags themselves in each day if I don’t dose myself up with Lemsip and show up.

A maths teacher who has been off since Tuesday with symptoms has received notification that he has coronavirus. Within half an hour eight members of staff have notified me that the NHS track-and-trace app has said they must now self-isolate. Eight, six of whom are maths teachers. Of the two maths staff that remain, one, the head of department, is almost in tears and the other is a newly qualified teacher.

During the day a further four members of staff start to feel unwell and go home. We finish the week with nearly 30% of our teachers absent. I decide we must ask two year groups to work at home next week and start to compile paper-based learning for those without laptops or wifi at home.

It is gone 7pm when the team leaves school, carrying the envelopes addressed to parents, to stuff in postboxes near our homes. I’m too tired to eat dinner. One more week to go.

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