Al Kingsley, chair of the Hampton Academies Trust, said concerns raised by school leaders and unions has unfairly seen them branded as obstructive, adding that there was a false narrative that schools had closed this year.
Mr Kingsley was full of praise both for schools and the local authority which he said had risen to the unique challenge, despite many primaries and secondaries now running deficits due to Covid-related costs not being picked up by the Government.
Describing the negative perception as “really frustrating,” Mr Kingsley told the Peterborough Telegraph: “Unions are highlighting the risk in schools. There is a lower risk in children but evidence of a higher risk of transmission and there are teachers and families who are vulnerable.
“The perception is that schools closed (during the pandemic) but they’ve always been open. Senior workers have not had time off since March and have been covering lunch duties and rotas due to a lack of staff.
“Teachers are extremely adaptable and this year have been more adaptable than ever with safeguarding and embracing technology in challenging circumstances.
“Without doubt staff are worried about their safety and the safety of children and families because of high transmission. We’ve seen that in south east schools.
“Schools are saying if you want testing give us time with professionals to do it. If you want us to keep staff and children safe give power to local leaders about the blend of off and on site learning.
“Some schools don’t have the flexibility to socially distance like others. Staff are being put at risk. It’s the same with hospital staff and people on the checkout at Tesco, but there’s no perspex screen. I suspect many staff are worried about what they’re bringing home.
“The biggest concern is before Christmas bubbles had to close. Depending on how many staff have to isolate we may not have a core number to keep people safe.
“A number of schools are at squeaky bum point spinning multiple plates to fill gaps in staffing.
“The news presents school leaders and unions as being obstructive. They do want to be open but with the right number of staff and kit.”
During the first lockdown which saw most pupils learning remotely, schools remained open to vulnerable children and children of key workers.
The Government is desperate to get all pupils back into classrooms after the Christmas break despite rising infection rates, with schools leaders and unions warning that there is not enough guidance on testing to ensure the safety of children and staff.
On December 15, Peterborough City Council said 200 staff and 2,565 pupils from a total of 40 schools were self-isolating in Peterborough.
Another problem is costs due to an enhanced cleaning programme and the need to cover staff absences.
Mr Kingsley said: “The Government put in an extra grant for Covid-related costs but that’s not been renewed. Schools could only claim if their costs would put you in deficit, so they were taking money away from their general budget.
“The message now from school leaders is that weekly cleaning costs are being spent in a day. In secondary schools pupils have to move to specialist rooms like computer labs and everything has to be cleaned down and sterilised daily. That’s a big cost to schools on tight budgets. Many are in deficit and with staff absent have to bring extra in.
“The Government position is that schools have increased budgets so should be able to cover it, but that came at the same point of extra teacher pay so that covers that.
“From a school’s point of view one wipes out the other. We’re working on really tight budgets and this is another expense they have to bear.”
But despite the frustrations and challenges, Mr Kingsley was full of praise for Peterborough City Council, and in particular its service director of education Jonathan Lewis, of whom he said: “He’s emailing out at midnight then following up at 4am next morning. I’m not sure he’s slept!”
He added: “In Peterborough and Cambridgeshire the local authority from a schools point of view has been brilliant. The level of communications and support, the headteachers’ group and CEO group have been happy with how supportive they’ve been.
“There have been daily updates on best practice, news, bubbles in schools and succinct summaries from the Department for Education to make things easier. Other counties have not done that.
“There’s been huge amounts of collaboration between CEOs and heads groups, a lot more co-working and a huge change in technology which has been a positive impact.!