What it’s like to be a school teacher during the coronavirus crisis, part two

Two months ago, I wrote about what was happening in school during the coronavirus crisis. What’s happened since then?

The biggest change is that schools have been closed for most children. Unlike what the right-wing press would have you believe, this has not meant that we teachers have been sat at home twiddling our thumbs. Across the country, teachers and support staff have been busy providing education and welfare support to children and their families.

At my school, we’ve provided online activities for pupils to complete at home – one Maths and one English activity every day. For those who do not have internet access at home, we have adapted the activities for paper packs and sent these directly to the children’s homes. In addition to the daily activities, there is an ongoing project on birds that the children can complete more independently. They have all been sent a sketchbook where they can draw, annotate and take notes on the subject. Finally, the whole school is working on a project to grow tomatoes. The plants are delivered to the homes of children who want one. The whole family can get involved. All-in-all, a rich curriculum to keep the children engaged!

Our work doesn’t end there. There are, of course, children still coming into school. These are the children of key workers but also those with an EHCP (education, health and care plan) or a social worker. They need more adult support than most, so even with the low numbers of children attending, plenty of teachers and teaching assistants are needed in school. This has been organised on a rota.

There is also a welfare element to the role. My colleagues and I have divided up the list of children and made sure we have regular phone contact with the parents. We check that they have access to the government’s free school meals vouchers, that they can access the home-learning we are providing, and that they are generally getting on alright. Not much time for thumb-twiddling by the end of this.

No one would pretend this is an adequate replacement for face-to-face teaching. But it does prioritise the health and safety of children, staff, and the wider community. The same cannot be said for the government’s reckless plan. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, wants to begin a phased reopening of schools, starting on June 1st and with all primary pupils before the end of the month. This is despite there being no personal protective equipment (PPE), no system in place for test-and-trace, and their own acknowledgement that social distancing is impossible in primary schools.

The government’s motivations are laid bare in their choice of which pupils should come back first. There’s a case for prioritising Year 6 – the oldest children in primary school. After all, they are preparing for their big transition to secondary school and they should be given some support. And if they don’t return to school before September, there will be no chance to say goodbye. 

But alongside the Year 6s, the government wants the three youngest year groups to return too: the four-, five- and six-year-olds in Nursery, Reception and Year 1. These kids are least able to follow social distancing rules and most likely to be damaged by the experience. How can you tell a five-year-old to stay two metres away from their friends? And if you even succeed, what will it do to their social and emotional development to be taught it’s dangerous to be too close to other people? Worse still, if a child develops symptoms while at school, the guidance is that they should be isolated in a closed room until they can be picked up. How can a five-year-old understand this?

The government’s choice to prioritise the youngest has nothing to do with education or child welfare. Rather, they want to send everyone back to work and they know that it isn’t possible with young children at home.

Fortunately, while the government might not have children and teachers’ best interests at heart, the labour movement does. In an almost unprecedented display of unity, nine education unions ≠ including the major teaching unions and the headteachers’ union – have called “on the government to step back from the 1st June and work with us to create the conditions for a safe return to schools”.

Right-wing commentators responded with the classic divide-and-rule tactic, saying that if doctors are risking their lives then education workers should too. Doctors disagree and have sided with the education unions: the British Medical Association argues that “until we have got case numbers much lower, we should not consider reopening schools”.

Teachers and education workers are faced with a choice. Do they trust their government to keep them safe? Or do they trust their unions, and the representatives of the medical profession? It’s not really a choice at all.

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