Schools hit hard by fourth wave of the pandemic

Figures show that along with the (health) care sector schools are being particularly badly hit by the fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic. School Heads are being forced to juggle with timetables as a growing number of teachers are being forced to quarantine after either having tested positive themselves or after having had been in close contact with someone that is infected with coronavirus. In interviews with VRT News two primary school Heads and the Coordinator of a group of schools tell of the challenges they face. 

During the past two weeks between 1,500 and 2,000 infections per 100,000 have been confirmed among staff at primary and secondary schools in Flanders. This is way above the figure of around 1,300 per 100,000 among the working population as a whole. The infection rate in Flemish school is currently higher than ever before. This has visible on the ground with schools being forced to close classes. Six schools in Flanders are closed completely, while around 50 others, mainly primary schools, are partially closed.

The Coordinator of the Driespan Schools Group that has schools in the West Flemish municipalities of Wingene, Ruiselede and Lieven Verkest has been forced to close one of his schools completely due to the large number of coronavirus infections among its staff. “There was a cluster of infections. Out of a team of 10 teachers 4 were infected and 3 have to quarantine”, Mr Verkest told VRT News.

The Driespan Schools Group has a total of 100 classes. “Currently 13 teachers are off work, and I am afraid that the situation won’t improve any time soon”. Mr Verkest added that he is in favour of mandatory vaccination for the entire population.

The Head of the De Vlieger municipal primary school in Kasterlee (Antwerp Province) Viviane Wouters told VRT News that she awaits the start of each new school day with trepidation. “Will we get a call from another member of staff telling us that they won’t be able to come to work? We spend all day trying to find solutions to fill the gaps”.

On Monday 8 of the 32 members of staff at De Vlieger were off work. 3 of them returned a couple of days later, but since then another 2 staff members have been unable to go to school. 

Creative solutions

Ms Wouters is proud that her team will go the extra mile to help bridge the gap left by colleagues’ absences. “Teachers that normally work 80% have given up their day off. Care and PE staff too are helping out where they can”. Nevertheless, Ms Wouters was forced to close one nursery class this week.

Bert Reyns is Head of three primary schools that are part of Het Leercollectief in Hamme (East Flanders). This week Mr Reyns was forced to close the nursery section of one of his schools. Elsewhere, no lack of creativity has been required in order to keep classes open. “We have already had up to 31 children in one class and exceptionally we let one teacher teach two different classes in two different classrooms at the same time”.

At the Driespan Schools Group staff from the care team help bridge to gap created by absent teaching staff. If no more care team staff are available, school Heads are then asked to teach classes.

All three Heads that we interviewed told us that their staff are under great pressure. Not only are they filling in for absent colleagues, but they are also providing distance learning for pupils that are quarantining. Ms Wouters says that she wonders whether they will be able to carry on like this for another 5 weeks until the Christmas holidays. Mr Reyns too is no longer convinced that the situation as it stands is tenable. “Until last week the answer was a very clear ‘yes’, looking at what has happened since I can only just hope that this remains the case”. 

Extra jab

The Christian teaching union COV has asked the High Council for Health and the Health Ministers to prioritise the administration of coronavirus booster jabs for primary school staff. Earlier this week, the Director-General of the Flemish Catholic Schools Board Lieven Boeve called for priority to be given to booster jabs for school staff. 

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