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Fears of COVID-19 disruption for summer exams

29th Apr 2022
Fears of COVID-19 disruption for summer exams

(Photo credit: Jack Hynes/Flickr Commons)

Soaring COVID-19 rates last term meant high pupil and staff absences, affecting exam preparation for students sitting this year’s General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and A level exams.

These are the first exams for three years, but teachers fear COVID-19-19 has caused more disruption in the run-up to exam season and, with infection rates still high, are concerned COVID-19-19 will cause further disruption in the summer term, prompting calls for the Government to reinstate free COVID-19 testing in schools.

In the wake of the easing of all COVID-19 restrictions, infections rose significantly in March. There is now evidence that COVID-19 rates may start to decline, according to the Office for National Statistics, which estimates that around 4.4 million people had the virus in the week up to April 9, down from nearly 4.9 million the week before, which is approximately 1 in 15 people testing positive for the virus.

The Office for National Statistics derives this figure from testing thousands of people at random to estimate how much virus there is in the country. While this is positive news as we head into the summer term and exam season, COVID-19 rates are still very high. There are concerns about how much disruption COVID-19 has already caused in schools last term and how it will affect this year’s GCSEs and A level exams.

Headteachers have already raised concerns about how many state school children were absent from school in March. Figures published by the Department for Education showed 202,000 pupils were off school on March 17 because of COVID-19, a steep rise from 58,000 two weeks earlier, when attendance was described as returning to “something approaching normal”.

Along with pupil absences, there have been staff absences too, with almost one in 10 teachers and school leaders (9.1 per cent) off on March 17, meaning thousands of teachers and teaching assistants were off leaving schools short-staffed and struggling to get supply cover. In addition, 48 per cent of teachers polled by the NASUWT teachers’ union said they had tested positive during the spring term.

Teachers have raised concerns that the levels of absences of both pupils and staff threaten to impact exam grades. They also believe the Government needs to have a plan for COVID-19 in schools. Last month, Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, said plans to remove free lateral flow tests amid rising cases were irresponsible.

“The Government cannot just let COVID-19 rip through schools. COVID-19 hasn’t gone away, and we need a proper plan for how to live with it long-term that is focused on keeping levels low and reducing disruption.”

A key concern is pupils preparing for GCSEs and A-levels this summer. “Many schools are still finishing teaching the specifications as there has been so much disruption over the last two years of exam courses,” said Whiteman. “More disruption now could be seriously damaging to pupils’ exam chances and education recovery.”

There are calls within the education sector for the Government to continue to make free COVID-19 tests available for educational settings as students prepare for exams. Soaring infection rates last term caused havoc in schools, with absences as pupils prepared for exams. As we start the summer term, teachers are concerned that COVID-19 will disrupt the exam season again. Exam halls are feared to be a spread point for COVID-19.

Although the Department for Education recommends that pupils with a high temperature stay at home on the day of an exam, teachers question why free lateral flow tests cannot be provided so that pupils can test if they have COVID-19 and prevent it from spreading.
In addition, invigilators are concerned about working in full school halls with no adequate protection. This raises concerns that schools may struggle to find enough experienced staff to actually invigilate the exams.

With the Government insistent that exams be held this year, many in the teaching profession cannot understand why the Government is not doing more to support schools and colleges by offering free testing. Schools and students should also receive guidance on what to do if they have COVID-19 during the exams. This is a stressful time for students and teachers alike.

COVID-19 has disrupted education for this year’s group as much as the previous year’s groups who had their exams cancelled.

Rachel Kayani

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