Schools in England have been closed to most pupils since the start of term, except for key worker children and those who are considered vulnerable. The government has said special schools must remain open to vulnerable children and children of key workers.

Teachers working with children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) feel that their concerns about safety are not being heard amid rapidly rising coronavirus rates. Many would like to see Send staff being prioritised for the Covid vaccine. Three teachers at special schools speak about the challenges that they face.

‘A lot of our pupils don’t understand social distancing’

“We need to be listened to when we say we don’t feel safe going to work,” said Ella, a teacher in a special school in Slough. “It’s not because we’re being a nuisance. It’s because we don’t feel it’s safe, either for us or our students.”

Ella says her school has put extensive measures in place to help keep transmission rates as low as possible but she thinks there are limits to how effective they can be in a Send environment. “It’s really difficult as a lot of our pupils don’t understand social distancing,” she said. “Some of the pupils find it very distressing and might even hit you if you’re wearing a mask because they don’t know who you are.”

Moreover, routine situations require members of staff to get “up close and personal” with the students. “Some of them wear nappies or pads so they need to be physically changed by two or more members of staff. Even if you and the other members of staff are wearing masks, the student might not be able to. We have students [Ella’s school includes students aged three to 19] who might need to be physically restrained to keep themselves or others safe.”

During the last few weeks, Ella feels as though communication has broken down between the government and the special educational needs sector and that teachers are being unfairly criticised as a result. “I get that it’s a really stressful time for everybody, including ministers but it can be really disheartening to hear in the news or on social media that we’re lazy or not really key workers.

“It makes me angry because we’re all just trying to carry on as normal but things aren’t: 1,000 people are being killed by this virus every day.”

“There is no way we would give up on our vulnerable children”

John*, a deputy head at a special school in the south-east of England, said the new lockdown has hit special needs children harder than the first lockdown last March. “During the first lockdown parents were worried about their children’s health so kept them at home, but now they’re worried about their education,” he said.

“Some of our Send children who have autism need structure and can’t cope with change. They have large gaps where they are way behind progress levels.”

John feels the government’s reaction so far has been “reactive” and “not well thought out”. “For [Gavin, the education secretary] Williamson to tell parents to complain to Ofsted if schools are struggling with online provision is absolutely insulting to our profession,” he said. “Teaching is a vocation. We don’t do it for gratitude or the salary but to help children.

“Whether or not we would be present in school to support our Send children is non-negotiable. Our children are really vulnerable and there is no way we would give up on them or stop what we are doing. We are here to provide somewhere safe, secure and nurturing for them.”

‘Staff feel forgotten’

“Send is pretty forgotten about in terms of Covid rules – you only need to look at headlines saying schools are closed,” said Lucy, a teacher at a special needs school in London.

“We encounter difficulties such as personal care and challenging or physical behaviours. Children put things in their mouths and forget to wash their hands.”

About 50% of children are in school with many staff grappling with working and staying safe. “Management seems to be pressured into having all kids in and there’s a huge feeling that parents need the respite,” she said. “At the same time there’s definitely a conflict between trying to keep staff safe too.”

One staff member tested positive for Covid after the Christmas break and their class had to self-isolate. “A major incident was announced in London but the Department for Education is encouraging all children to be in. Staff feel forgotten and it’s like we’ve been left to fend for ourselves.”

Lucy said not all children who were considered vulnerable had the same needs.

“A good solution would be to have a sensible amount of kids in schools. Some of them would be at risk at home but others wouldn’t. It’s definitely a worrying time.”

Some names have been changed.

Rachel Obordo and Alex Mistlin 2021-01-12 12:14:13

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