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

In March, I wrote about the chaotic last week before schools closed. I followed up in May, sharing my experiences as a teacher during lockdown. Now, with schools fully open again, it’s time for part three of this series.

Teachers and school leaders tend to spend a good chunk of their summer preparing for the next year. There are classrooms to decorate, lessons to prepare and admin to complete. This summer, we had an extra task: working out how to keep hundreds of children and dozens of adults safe.

The government mandated every school to produce a risk assessment. Trade unions offered a checklist to make sure they cover all bases – and there are many. Schools plan for everything from hand-washing to home-working, PPE (personal protective equipment) to PPA (planning, preparation and assessment), from ‘catching up’ to catching sneezes. 

It was not possible to achieve this at my primary school in Brixton through small tweaks alone. Introducing safety measures has required a complete transformation of many aspects of school life: 

  • All children have their temperature taken on arrival, and they are sent home if it’s too high.
  • Shared learning and play equipment is cleaned between classes.
  • Neither children nor adults can mix outside their year group ‘bubbles’, which means no more whole-school assemblies.
  • Start and end times are staggered, and lunch takes longer to minimise social mixing amongst parents and children. If pupils have siblings in other year groups, their school day may be out of sync to the rest of their class.
  • Shared spaces are strictly scheduled and the school has a one-way system around the whole building.

The children are clearly happy to be back. They missed their friends and their teachers, and many missed the reassuring certainty of the school day. It’s vital for their education, too. The gap between March and September is the longest period without compulsory schooling since it was first introduced in 1870. Despite our best efforts, remote learning was a poor substitute for face-to-face teaching.

Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that schools are still not properly equipped to deal with the virus. We have endless routines and systems to keep ourselves and the children safe but nothing can change one basic fact: schools are the only places where groups of more than 30 are encouraged to gather inside, with no social distancing and no face coverings. This inevitably increases the likelihood and the impact of an outbreak.

We’re only two weeks into term and already this is clear. Hundreds of pupils have been sent home to self-isolate after the virus was identified or suspected in their school. This will only worsen as the infection rate continues to climb, and as annual coughs and colds begin to appear.

Trade unions, in particular the National Education Union (NEU), tried to prevent these outbreaks. We called for the government to put more money into school safety. A little investment could have bought more space and staff, reducing the size of each bubble. We are facing a cliff-edge of unemployment once the job retention scheme ends next month, and some of those previously furloughed people would happily work in a school.

If we had readily-available testing, we would only need to self-isolate while waiting for the results. Instead, hundreds of pupils are being sent home for two weeks after each outbreak. And if the government could guarantee every pupil access to Wi-Fi and a laptop, teaching could continue during children’s self-isolation. If a local infection rate rises, we could even introduce blended learning, with children in schools one week and at home the week after, thus minimising bubble sizes and social contact.

During the summer term, the unions and the government were at loggerheads. Both agreed that children needed to be back in school, but who would be willing to make the sacrifices necessary? Would education workers compromise our health, or would the government stump up the necessary cash? Ultimately, we teachers backed down first and schools reopened without the precautions we wanted.

It’s good to be back at school. I didn’t become a teacher so that I could set activities over the internet. I am much happier hearing the children read, watching them solve problems and enjoying the little interactions that make the job so special. At the same time, I am worried about what the term will bring. The government faced a choice of investing in safety or allowing chaotic closures up and down the country. So far, it looks like they have gone for the latter. It is not too late for them to change their minds.

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