Donna Coleman died after Covid ran riot at Burnley College. Should it have been open?

The joke went: it was impossible to get Covid at Burnley College. The virus didn’t exist there. All through September, October, November and December 2020, as more and more people came down with Covid yet the further education (FE) college stayed open, Donna Coleman would make this gag to her sisters, Steph Coleman, 38, and Vicki Coleman, 45. She spoke to them on the phone every day. “It was a running joke,” Steph says. “‘Who’s come down with Covid now?’”

Although the sisters laughed about it, in truth they were alarmed. Donna was a member of the teaching staff at the college in Lancashire. She worked with teenagers who had been kicked out of school, as well as long-term unemployed people, helping them to continue their education or find work. (Steph and Vicki had previously worked at the college, too, although they had left by September 2020.)

On these calls, Donna repeatedly told her sisters that she was frightened about going into work. She felt that the college’s Covid safety protocols were inadequate. Students weren’t social distancing in the corridors. The staff room was packed. “She told me that there wasn’t much difference between pre-Covid and now,” Vicki recalls. “I asked her: ‘Do you feel safe?’ She said: ‘Not at all. There’s too many people in the place.’”

Steph, who lives nearby in Clitheroe, urged her sister to complain, but Donna was fearful of repercussions. “I told Donna: ‘They’re not taking their duty of care seriously,’” she says. “‘It’s going to take something bad to happen to somebody here for them to [take it seriously].’” Vicki, who now works in sales and lives in Rawtenstall, also in Lancashire, offered to put in a complaint to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on her sister’s behalf, but Donna demurred. “She said: ‘You can’t, because we have the same surname. It will come back to me and I will lose my job,’” says Steph.

As the term wore on, Donna began going for regular Covid tests. She had to pretend she had symptoms, but she thought the lie was better than accidentally spreading Covid around the college. “We are not safe,” she wrote in a WhatsApp message to a colleague on 26 September. She considered reporting the college to her union, the University and College Union (UCU), but the feedback form asked for a name; Donna was too scared that her complaint might be traced back to her.

Although she didn’t realise it, Donna wasn’t the only person expressing concerns about the college’s Covid measures. Marie Monaghan, a regional support official for the UCU, which represents FE workers, had been raising the alarm with Burnley College for months – about social distancing and the college’s adherence to guidance around self-isolation for students and staff – and getting nowhere. “I get paid to look after people,” Monaghan says. “And I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to do my job properly and protect them.”

Monaghan’s efforts were not fruitful. Burnley College remained open with what she believed to be inadequate safety protocols in place. Waves of infection crashed through the college, which by the latter half of the autumn term was in a tier 3 area of England. The first Covid outbreak was in October. At least 22 individuals were required to isolate. At the end of November, there was another outbreak. At least four members of staff tested positive for Covid in the foundation and community studies (FACS) department, where Donna worked and where many students were teenagers with additional needs, such as learning difficulties.

Donna kept going to work, kept calling Steph and Vicki to express her concerns, kept going for Covid tests. Then, in mid-December, there was a third outbreak. At least 12 people tested positive. Donna’s head of department had to close FACS, as so many people were off sick. Donna was one of them. She fell ill on 11 December and tested positive on 14 December. At home, members of Burnley College teaching staff messaged each other in dismay. “The place is a giant petri dish,” one staffer messaged Donna. “It’s sweeping the staff room again,” responded Donna, who said she had a fever and an aching head. She couldn’t eat and spent most of her time sleeping. When she was awake, Donna urged colleagues to get tests. “Everyone needs to go remote or shut it down,” Donna wrote in one message.

Still, Donna wasn’t fearful for her life. She was only 42. Mostly, she was upset that she would have to spend Christmas on her own. (Donna lived alone and was in a support bubble with her mum and dad.) She was angry that what she had predicted for months had finally come to pass. They had made light of it on the calls, but it wasn’t funny. “It was a running joke,” Steph muses, sounding dazed. “It’s not a laughing matter now. Because of what happened.”

Donna was born in Bolton, but her family moved to Haslingden, 10 miles north, when she was seven. Her dad was a builder and her mum worked part-time in a newsagent. In addition to Steph and Vicki, Donna had an older brother, Danny, now 44. Donna was an adorable slip of a girl with a blond pageboy bob, who was bullied by her older siblings. “We’d hide at the bottom of the stairs with slices of bread, covered in jam, and smack them in her face and make her cry,” says Vicki. “We were horrible. That’s probably why she got to be so ballsy.”

It is curious that Donna went on to work in education, because she hated school. Primary was OK, but Donna loathed secondary school. “My mum battled with her to get her to go,” says Steph. “She hated the work and thought it was pointless.” Steph and Donna shared a room in the family home. They squabbled over silly things – Steph was forever stealing Donna’s Jean Paul Gaultier perfume and Lancôme Juicy Tube lip glosses – but were inseparable, more like a married couple than sisters. “Steph and Donna did everything together,” says Vicki. “They were like husband and wife.”

Donna would lie on her single bed, reading Smash Hits through thick Deirdre Barlow-style glasses. She had an 80s perm and liked to play about with makeup, but wasn’t much for boyfriends or dating, preferring instead to boss about her little sister and interfere in her life. “I would always tell her: ‘You’re not my mother, you know!’” says Steph.

Donna left school at 16. “She always said: ‘I just want to work and earn money, buy a car and go on holidays abroad,’” says Steph. Donna’s first job was at a factory that hired out wedding suits. “She was paid peanuts, but within a year or so they promoted her into the office,” says Steph. After leaving the factory, Donna worked for a food manufacturer, working her way up into the product development team, where she was given the opportunity to do a National Vocational Qualification. Later, she became an in-house training assessor and earned a Postgraduate Certificate in Education, which is how she got into education.

“She cared about the learners so much,” says Steph. “They loved her. But she was so strict. She was scarier than the security guards.” Donna brooked no disobedience. “She was very straight,” says Vicki. “She told them: ‘This is what I expect of you,’ and they respected her for it.’” But Donna cared for the vulnerable young people she worked with. “She saw herself in the unemployed,” says Steph. “She’d worked in a factory and had no qualifications and people thought that was all that she was ever going to achieve. But she’d achieved so much, because she’d been given chances. Donna wanted to give everyone chances. To show them: look, you can do it.”

Donna loved to travel, usually with Steph, graduating from girlie holidays in Ayia Napa and Magaluf to cruises and shopping holidays in Las Vegas and New York. “She wasn’t much of a sunbather. She always wanted to go out and see things,” says Steph. Donna was also ferociously loyal: when Vicki’s marriage broke down, Donna moved in with her sister, so she wouldn’t be alone. “She wouldn’t leave me for a week because I was in such a mess,” says Vicki.

Vicki says her sister dedicated her whole life to meeting people. “Helping kids believe in themselves and get on the straight and narrow. Getting an unemployed person their first job in 20 years. That’s all she ever did.” This is why Vicki is determined to get justice, for the errors she believes contributed to her sister’s death. “Donna always used to say,: ‘Don’t wish badly on anyone. Just wish them what they deserve,’” says Vicki. “She’d want someone to be held accountable for this. And they should be. Because we’ve been robbed.”

In the first wave of the pandemic, schools and colleges closed, except for vulnerable children and those of key workers. Ministers went into the second wave in autumn determined to do things differently. “We cannot let this virus damage our children’s futures even more than it has already,” said Boris Johnson, the prime minister, explaining why schools would remain open even after England entered a second national lockdown on 5 November.

To keep schools safe, the government issued a stream of guidance to headteachers and college leaders in the run-up to the autumn term. Analysis by the education site Schools Week found that there were almost 100 updates to government guidance to schools in the period February-June 2020, with a quarter of those published in the evenings or at weekends. “It was an incredibly challenging period,” says Julie McCulloch, of the Association of School and College Leaders. “There was an enormous amount of guidance coming out.”

Burnley College reopened on 15 June to staff, before reopening to students in September. “Corridors were full,” says Angela Carlile, 45, a learning support assistant in the FACS department. “When we were in the classrooms, we were told we had to wear visors, but students didn’t have to. We were told they were allowed to sit next to each other. The students weren’t social distancing.” Many of the people Carlile supported had underlying health conditions. “Most of the windows in our department don’t open,” she says. “Some of the rooms are very small.”

Another member of the teaching staff, speaking under the pseudonym Alex, concurs: “Social distancing didn’t exist. People were congregating all the time.” Alex says that students, who were required to wear masks in the corridors, often wore them under their chin. In at least one staff room, people did not wear masks. Alex does not remember seeing windows in their department being opened. (Government guidance from the time mandated that spaces should be well ventilated at all times.) “It felt like a normal day in the office,” says Alex.

Throughout the autumn term, Donna expressed her concerns to Steph. “She told me that there were 25 people in the FACS staff room, all sat back to back or side by side, with no screens in between,” Steph says. Alex says that screens were not installed in at least one staff room until November. “We all felt the same,” Alex says. “We didn’t feel safe.” But Alex didn’t feel able to speak out. “The problem at college was that people were scared … my family was telling me: ‘I can’t believe you’re going in,’” says Alex. “But what was I meant to do? I just had to deal with it and hope for the best.”

Even the most orderly educational establishment was powerless to mandate that students wear masks correctly or social distance at all times – particularly when dealing with rowdy teenagers. In fact, the government’s guidance said “no one should be excluded from education for not having a face covering”. But Burnley College’s approach when dealing with staff members who tested positive for Covid caused alarm to many members of the teaching faculty that term.

On 29 September, Carlile left work early to go with her father to a hospital appointment. It was bad news. Doctors said he was terminally ill with cancer. On 2 October, a Friday, Carlile received a message from a colleague. The teacher she had supported in class on Monday and Tuesday had tested positive for Covid. The colleague was telling her because they knew about Carlile’s dad. “I was really angry, because I thought: ‘I should be hearing this from work,’” says Carlile. By Friday evening, Carlile still hadn’t been told by the college. She was furious. “That information should have come to me from managers, not from everyone gossiping about it,” she says.

The following day, a Saturday, Carlile called her manager. “I said: ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’” Carlile remembers. “She said: ‘I only found out myself yesterday.’” On the Monday, 5 October, Carlile called HR and informed them that she wouldn’t be coming to work because she felt she needed to self-isolate. Later that day, she received an email from Burnley College. “If you had face to face contact (within one metre) of this person, including being coughed on, having skin to skin contact … you do not need to self-isolate unless you’re contacted by the NHS Test and Trace service,” the email read. Carlile was told not to share the email with any colleagues or students. Carlile never received a notification from test and trace. Carlile’s class was not sent home to self-isolate and returned to lessons the following week, despite the fact that their teacher had tested positive for Covid.

This seems to be an inaccurate interpretation of government guidance. Burnley College should have contacted the Department for Education (DfE) and worked with it to identify close contacts of confirmed Covid cases and tell them to self-isolate, rather than relying on test and trace to do the heavy lifting. The guidance read: “You must send home those people who have been in close contact with the person who has tested positive.”

Donna also received an email from Burnley College, on 24 September, informing her that a colleague had tested positive for Covid. The email told her to self-isolate and seek a test only if she were displaying symptoms. It also said not to forward the email to anyone. Burnley College had misinterpreted government guidance, failing to notify close contacts of confirmed Covid cases of their responsibility to self-isolate regardless of whether they had symptoms.

By now, Monaghan was really frightened for the staff and students. She had received two complaints from staff, both saying they were being told they didn’t need to self-isolate, even though they had been in close contact with infected people. (One of the complaints was from Carlile; the other person remains anonymous.)

On 6 October, Monaghan emailed Burnley College, asking for a meeting. It did not reply to this email. On 9 October, she followed up. “It’s my understanding that some staff aren’t being made aware of relevant positive cases and wrongly advised to not self-isolate when they would be classified as a close contact,” Monaghan wrote. Burnley College subsequently agreed to meet with local union officials, but refused to meet with Monaghan throughout the autumn term.

Monaghan filed complaints with the HSE, on 13 October and 30 October. She raised all her concerns: lack of social distancing on site, failure to make students wear masks, not telling staff they needed to self-isolate when they had been in contact with confirmed cases. The HSE did not take enforcement action.

An HSE spokesperson said: “All concerns raised with us relating to arrangements at the college were looked into. The college provided us with detailed records and after discussions we were satisfied that the college was complying with the relevant published guidance.

“Our enquiries relating to the death of Donna Coleman are, however, ongoing. We remain in contact with Donna’s family and have explained what we do, how and why.”

Carlile subsequently tested positive, as did her mother and father. Her mother was hospitalised for three weeks with Covid and almost died. “My mum and dad got it from me,” Carlile says. She is embittered about the whole experience and has been on long-term sick leave with stress since October. “I loved my job and I loved supporting students,” she says. “But I don’t like how the college was run … when it affects people’s lives, and somebody lost their life, it’s really hard to go back and crack on like nothing happened.”

The person who lost their life, of course, was Donna.

As teaching staff fought valiantly to keep schools and FE colleges open during the autumn term, Covid cases spiralled out of control. By 8 October, the daily death toll was higher than it had been on 23 March, when the UK was put into a national lockdown. Five days later, on 13 October, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, called for a “circuit breaker” lockdown over the school half-term in England, to bring cases down. Minutes from the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage), published that same day, revealed that the government’s scientific advisers had also called for an England-wide lockdown on 21 September, but had been overruled.

The prime minister was adamant: there would be no second lockdown. Such a move would be “the height of absurdity” that would “turn the lights out”, he said on 21 October. Meanwhile, case numbers kept going up. By 31 October, there were 21,915 a day in the UK. Finally, Johnson bowed to the inevitable, announcing a national lockdown, starting on 5 November. Yet schools and colleges were to remain open.

Evidence has shown consistently that children and teenagers are at low risk of serious illness or death from Covid. But the same does not apply to the adults who work in educational settings. “Start from the basic principles,” says Prof Susan Michie of University College London, a member of Independent Sage and Sage sub-group SPI-B. “You increase risk [of contracting Covid] the more people you have contact with, over longer amounts of time, at close proximity, in indoor spaces, particularly if they are poorly ventilated and people aren’t wearing masks. Then ask yourself: what environment combines all those things together? The answer is schools. By definition, it’s unsafe.”

Data from the DfE, published in January 2021, found that Covid infection rates were 1.9 times higher for primary and secondary school teachers than the general population and twice as high for special school teachers. (FE colleges were not studied in the dataset.)

Throughout the autumn, scientists sounded the alarm about Covid transmission rates in schools. On 27 November, Independent Sage, in collaboration with the Emergency Advisory Group for Learning and Education (Eagle), published a report calling for stronger safety protocols in English schools. “The situation in schools has become dangerous,” the scientists warned, pointing to a 50-fold increase in infections in secondary school students since the start of September. The report urged school leaders to move to a mixture of digital learning with in-person tuition, to make mask-wearing mandatory for all students during classes and for windows and doors to remain open, even in cold weather, to minimise the risks of airborne transmission.

“We were concerned,” says Dr Terry Wrigley of Eagle, a co-author of the report. He believes the government obscured the reality of the risks posed to teaching staff in schools because it was determined to keep schools open, come what may. “The government wanted to give the appearance of normality and show that they were doing all they could, and things would be wonderful, until the next crisis. At which point, they took belated action.”

Throughout the autumn term, the government continued to insist that keeping schools open was safe, even as Covid cases shot upwards. By mid-December, most of England was under tier 3 restrictions, meaning that leisure and non-essential shops were closed. “When you eliminate everything else – close hospitality, close leisure centres – and all you have left is schools and supermarkets, it must be happening in one of those two places, right?” says the virologist Prof Julian Tang of the University of Leicester. “There’s no reason it wouldn’t be happening: unmasked students; classrooms of 30 people that are poorly ventilated.”

The repeated Covid outbreaks that Burnley College experienced in the autumn term were replicated across the country. Meanwhile, the government put pressure on schools and colleges to stay open with a mixture of cajoling, financial sweeteners and, in some instances, legal threats. “Large numbers of staff were absent and school leaders were saying: ‘We don’t think it’s safe to keep our schools open,’” says McCulloch, from the Association of School and College Leaders.

In December 2020, headteachers and local authority leaders in tier 3 London took matters into their own hands. “The number of cases and deaths were all going in the wrong direction,” says Clare Coghill, the leader of Waltham Forest council. “It seemed to be getting worse and worse.” After consulting headteachers, Coghill and her fellow councillors took the decision to close schools for Christmas early, on 14 December: “At that stage, rates were doubling every four days in the borough.” Greenwich and Islington also advised schools to close early.

The secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, intervened. Headteachers received letters reminding them of their legal responsibilities to keep schools open until the end of term. Williamson even launched legal action against Greenwich council, forcing it to abandon its plans to close early. Local authorities were allowed no discretion. “It felt petty,” says Coghill.

It was an unedifying spectacle: teachers being threatened with legal action for not keeping schools open in the middle of a deadly pandemic that was running out of control. “You look back and think: how on earth did we get to that situation?” says McCulloch.

Donna almost made it through to the end of term without falling ill. One by one, Donna’s colleagues developed symptoms. In all, at least 12 staff would test positive for Covid as a result of this December outbreak, causing the FACS head of department to close it early, on 15 December.

Despite the outbreak, a Christmas party was held on site on 18 December, the last day of term; this has been verified by the UCU. “Every term they have a ‘staff development day’,” says Alex. “At Christmas, it’s the ‘fun’ one … it’s like a social, really.” At the party, staff were given alcohol and gifts. “If we had known about the party, we would have sent out instructions for people not to attend,” says Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary. “To me, that’s clearly not an event anyone should be attending and it’s not an event that the college should be hosting.”

In a video provided to the Guardian, the date of which cannot be verified, about 40 people can be seen dancing in a room at Burnley College. A man plays the saxophone while others jump up and down and wave their arms in the air; at least one person is wearing a Santa hat. With the exception of two women in face coverings, none of the revellers appear to be wearing masks or practising social distancing.

In early December, the college had filmed a promotional video, featuring staff dancing to Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling! in Christmas jumpers and Santa hats. In the video, dozens of staff dance arm in arm indoors, not wearing masks. In one shot, five staff are crammed into a car together, also not wearing masks. The video was uploaded to Burnley College’s social media channels in mid-December, but has since been deleted. “That video shows they have a poor safety culture, that they can’t get their head around the basics. It’s like it was a joke to them,” says Monaghan. At the time, Burnley was in tier 3 restrictions. Staff should have been on site only for essential work and should have maintained social distancing while they did it. “They were doing parties after my sister was poorly,” says Vicki. “It’s just shocking.”

Burnley College were approached for comment about all the events detailed in this article. A spokesperson said: “The college is in dialogue with the Health and Safety Executive in relation to Donna’s tragic death. There are numerous and significant inaccuracies relating to events and individuals within [this] article, but given the matter remains with the HSE it is not appropriate to comment further at this time.”

On 23 December, Steph went to Donna’s house, to drop her Christmas presents off at the front door. “She was very pale,” Steph remembers. “She had lost weight. She looked tired.” Characteristically, Donna apologised for not having wrapped Steph’s presents; she hadn’t had the strength. Donna unwrapped the pair of Kurt Geiger boots Steph had bought her as a Christmas present, but didn’t have the energy to try them on. On 29 December, Steph woke up to a message from Donna in the family WhatsApp group. It said: “I don’t want to worry you, but I had to call an ambulance, because I couldn’t breathe. I’m in Blackburn Royal A&E.”

On New Year’s Eve, Donna was moved to the intensive care unit. On 3 January 2021, doctors told Donna that she needed to go on a ventilator. Donna sent a flurry of text messages to her family and friends. They were goodbye messages. Donna texted her best friend from work and told her she loved her and to look after her family for her. Donna’s last conversation was, of course, with Steph.

A flurry of text messages passed between Donna and Steph on 3 January, just before she was intubated.

Donna: I’m fighting all I can. I just need some help.

Steph: Don’t you dare give up. You promised you’d fight.

Donna: I am fighting.

Steph: Just think of it like the best sleep you’ll ever have. We’ll be here, waiting for you.

Donna: I can’t wait to have a hug.

Steph: I love you sis.

Donna: I love you more.

Steph: It’s not possible.

Donna read Steph’s last message, but never responded. “It was at 4.15pm,” Steph remembers. “It’s etched into my brain.”

As Donna was trying to stay alive on a ventilator, an unseemly debacle was unfolding in classrooms across the country. On 30 December, Williamson pledged to reopen most English primary schools on 4 January, as planned, with secondary schools reopening later, when they had set up mass on-site testing. The National Education Union (NEU), which represents teaching staff, responded with dismay. “We are astonished at today’s announcement by Gavin Williamson … [he] is sending the majority of primary pupils and staff back on Monday to working environments which aren’t Covid secure,” said the NEU’s general secretary, Dr Mary Bousted, calling for teachers to be given the Covid vaccine.

The government was unmoving. On 3 January, Johnson insisted that schools were “safe”. On 4 January, English primary schools reopened as planned. That evening, Johnson put the country into a third national lockdown and closed schools. It was an absurd farce. Within 24 hours, Johnson had gone from reassuring the public that schools were safe to admitting they may be “vectors for transmission”. The mass-testing capabilities that schools had built over the Christmas break, when they could have been putting their energy and resources into setting up remote learning packages, were mothballed.

But Donna was oblivious to the chaos. Late in the evening of 3 January, her organs started to fail. On 6 January, Donna’s family got the call they had been dreading. “I wanted to hold her hand,” Steph says. “She wasn’t going on her own.” Vicki, Steph and Donna’s father were allowed to visit. They felt that Donna wasn’t in that sterile hospital room, but had already left her body. “I said: ‘Let’s do it. Put her at peace.’”

Steph and Vicki each took their sister’s hand. Their father held their hands. Doctors turned off the ventilator. “I lost Donna the minute they put her on the ventilator,” says Vicki. “When they rang up to say she wasn’t responding and her organs were failing, it was like someone just shot me. They tore my heart out that night.” After 10 minutes, at 8.45am, Donna died. Steph, Vicki and their father embraced, collected her things and went home.

“It never goes from you,” says Steph. “I don’t think I’ve accepted it. The other day, something happened at work, and I said: ‘I have to tell Donna this.’ And then I realised I can’t.” She misses her sister the most in the morning, when she is driving to work. They used to talk every morning on Steph’s commute. “I always assumed when we were old ladies we’d go on holiday together, go to bingo. I thought my partner would die before me and I’d have Donna.”

Between 9 March and 28 December 2020, there were 73 deaths among teaching and educational professionals in England and Wales. One survey from November 2020 of members of the teaching union NASUWT found that nearly half of teachers surveyed felt that the Covid security measures in their schools were inadequate.

Donna was not the only person linked to the December Covid outbreak at Burnley College to die. Her head of department’s husband also died of Covid, on the same day. Steph struggles not to feel consumed by rage at her sister’s former employers. “It’s strong. I have waves of it. I have to stop myself. Because Donna always said: ‘Don’t wish people bad.’”

But most of the time, Steph just misses her big sister: misses her busybodiness, her unquestioning loyalty, her selfless love. “She’s still here in spirit,” says Steph. “She’s too nosy not to be. She’ll be standing behind me, telling me off, for the rest of my life.”

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