THE Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday that schools across the country will reopen in March has unwittingly sparked a logistical conundrum.

Westminster’s ‘big bang’ approach will see pupils return to primary and secondary schools, as well as colleges, from Monday, March 8.

The move is a controversial one in the eyes of many school staff and education unions, who hoped to see teachers and teaching assistants prioritised for vaccines before pupils returned to face-to-face teaching.

Secondary and college students will be required to submit to fortnightly COVID testing, and wear face coverings inside classrooms as well as in communal areas.

Schools across St Helens have mostly welcomed the news after weeks of online learning, but admit testing hurdles might be difficult to achieve.

Paul Willerton, headteacher at The Sutton Academy, said: “I think it’s excellent. We want students back in school and back with their teachers; as good as the online provision is that local schools have provided, it doesn’t replace face-to-face teaching.

“It’s no secret that the profession thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to have staff vaccinated prior to students returning, especially now as some of the evidence shows [vaccines] help to reduce transmission. Ultimately the priority is to have students in school and accessing their education, as long as it’s safe to do so, and all the data says now is the time.

“The guidance for secondary schools advises a phased return from the 8th to accommodate testing. We aim to have all students back onsite in the middle of that week.

“The measures we had in place before Christmas are nearly identical to what we’ll have in terms of the new guidance – year group bubbles, staggered start and finish times, different breaks and lunches, and additional cleaning.

“Testing is going to be the biggest logistical task - managing the three tests per student with 3-5 day gaps. Schools have all set up their own testing centres [so] it’s absolutely doable. It’s probably going to create a slight staggered start from the 8th, but we hope to have all students back by the 10th.

“The priority now is getting students back onsite and back into lessons where they can focus on their education and staff can support them with the challenges of the last few weeks.”

Carmel College Principal Mike Hill had similar concerns about testing.

He said: “We’ve set up a testing station as we’re required to do so, but the challenge now is to deliver 6,000 tests in the first two weeks. That’s 42 hours of testing. We need to find ways of managing that – some students may come back before the 8th of March to get tested, and staff are already being tested now. We’re also going to be giving students home tests from around that time as well.

“We’re really keen to get our students back face-to-face as quickly and safely as we can. I and the students agree that this is the best place for them.

“I am concerned about the big bang approach. St Helens and Knowsley have been in the top 10 in the country in terms of national COVID levels for the last month, and the rates are three times what they were last April.

"But St Helens is doing a fantastic job with the vaccination rollout, and as a college we only had 30 positive cases last term, none of which were created within the college.

“We’ve staggered our days and changed the timetable completely to try and keep away from school [traffic], as well as doubling the amount of transport we provide in an academic year.

"The majority of students were already wearing masks during lessons back in summer, although it’s not easy to sit for two hours with a mask on. We have to be flexible to make people feel happy and confident.

“We know we can provide a safe setting for students, but what we can’t do is run people’s lives. We need everyone to keep abiding by the rules, and hopefully by the next term we might be getting somewhere close to normal again.”

Rainford High headteacher Steve Young added: “It’ll be fantastic to have children back in school.

“We’ve been in lockdown for a significant period of time, and what we want is for schools to be open and for children and staff to be safe.

“I think the question of teacher vaccinations is also the question around other professions, such as supermarket workers, who have been working throughout lockdown and haven’t been put further forward for vaccines. The statistics suggest teachers are at no more risk than others.

“If people follow the procedures in place, we can reduce the risk as far as we can.

"Although [Rainford High] had some cases before Christmas, we did have very few incidences of COVID because of people following infection control measures effectively.”