School reopening: mixed messages and mixed feelings

The last day I spent in school, in March, was unnerving. I had been watching the distressing scenes from Italy and Spain and everyone already knew that we should have closed the week before. I felt too anxious to stay in the staffroom at break and lunchtime. A child with symptoms who had been sent home the previous day, arrived back in my classroom and coughed frequently. He was sent home again. I stood at a distance from the students as much as was possible and left that afternoon with a sense of relief. “See you in September,” I joked to my head of department, not realising that this would, in fact, be the case.

But schools did not fully close that week. The children of key workers, and those who were especially vulnerable, were encouraged to come in and staff placed on a rota to look after them. The teachers all began their new routine of finding or creating material so other pupils could work at home.

Our secondary school already had a well-established online homework system which meant students were used to dealing with work online, but our significant number of deprived families no longer had access to afterschool support and IT facilities. Government promises to provide those families with a laptop have still not materialised, but even before that promise the school had begun trying to find equipment to send home.

The pastoral support staff rang vulnerable children and their families frequently to try to ensure that they were safe and, if necessary, alert support systems. Tutors contacted all the children in their tutor group by telephone, to check on how they were managing the schoolwork and the lockdown. The head teacher sent out regular updates to parents about government guidelines and information about how to get help, how to contact the school.

Like other employees, many school staff have families of their own and were now trying to work while looking after their own children and home school them as well. Few had time to take up a new hobby or write the novel they had always dreamed of. Nor were they making sourdough bread from scratch. Like many others, they were getting up early to work before starting their day as home-school teachers and parents. Some teachers had elderly parents of their own whom they now had to shop for; and some were shielding themselves because of a health condition, which made them especially vulnerable.

Although the difficulty of balancing work and family during the pandemic was inevitable, government decisions have added to our problems. Despite months to plan, the government failed to heed the warnings from professionals about A level grading, which led to the exam fiasco in August. Many students were devastated. Schools swung into action trying to support them to negotiate the ever-changing advice about what to do next and then pick up the pieces after the inevitable U-turn which came too late for some. The GCSE and BTec confusion again meant a huge amount of extra work for staff and real worries for pupils and parents.

As schools reopen in September, can we be sure that the virus is under control?  We have a world beating track and trace system according to the prime minister, but the evidence does not support this claim. The Department for Education has told us that we can have 30+ students in a classroom without significant transmission of the virus: but are the students all going to stay in their ‘bubble’ and behave sensibly following all the advice about self-distancing and hand washing? Will they wear masks in corridors and crowded areas?  

Still, I am glad that we are returning. The children desperately need to get back into classrooms. They have missed out on so much and a YMCA report ‘Back on Track’ published this month, reports that 56 per cent of young people are worrying about falling behind at school. But they also have some real anxiety about how safe they are at school.  68 per cent of young people are concerned that they or their family might catch coronavirus while 63 per cent worry about maintaining social distancing at school.

Most parents want schools to reopen, though a significant minority do not want their children to return yet; I understand both responses. Teachers are looking forward to getting back to normal as well. They have missed their students and their colleagues.

However, many teachers and school staff still don’t feel it will be safe to return to work. Older teachers, like myself, have reason to be anxious, as do those who have underlying health conditions. The idea of walking down a busy secondary school corridor full of jostling teenagers is really unsettling and I have every intention of wearing a mask if I have to. Hand sanitiser in every classroom is great, but how do I help a student understand a page in a textbook while standing two metres away? How do teaching assistants help a child with special needs without getting close to them? We are going to have to take risks, but they could be reduced if that ‘world beating’ testing system was really up and running or if the tracking of contacts was successfully in place.

Dogmatic assertions by government that all schools must reopen and all will be well contrast with its dithering over detail. Late on Friday 28 August, at the start of the August bank holiday and just days before the new school year, further guidelines on how schools should respond to Covid19 were issued. They came days after a hasty U-turn on whether older pupils should wear masks, and while the dust from the exam grading fiasco had barely settled.  The track record of the government on education or other aspects of the pandemic – the scandalous treatment of care homes for example – hardly inspires confidence, but they expect us to trust them when they say that all will be fine.

A better way might be to trust the people who actually work in schools and who understand the day to day difficulties of managing hundreds of children in a specific environment, because every school is different. It would be better to treat teachers and parents as grown-ups wrestling with difficult choices rather than obstacles to be overcome. Then, maybe, we could work together to make this challenging new term a success.