Since lockdown began I have been working in school once a week, looking after the children of key workers, and the most vulnerable or disadvantaged children. This has usually meant a team of three to four staff “looking after” and trying to “teach” a group of 15 to 20 children, aged between three and 11. We have had the use of multiple classrooms, halls, computing suites and playgrounds. The day is totally unlike a normal teaching day. I have been left mentally and physically exhausted every day that I have done it, in a way I am not usually, and I have had crashing lows in energy, motivation and productivity in the days that follow. I volunteered for this role and will continue to do it willingly, as I believe this provision for these families is vital. What the government is asking us to do from 1 June is very different.
We educators have been thrust into the forefront of a terribly confusing and difficult situation. It is a political situation. It is an economic situation. It is a medical and scientific situation. And it is a life or death situation. On Thursday evening (14 May) I was asked by my headteacher to declare (by 4pm Monday) whether “there are any reasons why you cannot return to work on 1st June”. Interesting phrasing. Since receiving that email, I have tried to decipher, simplify and collate all the legitimate, relevant arguments I have read and reflected upon these past few weeks, and I have tried to do this as sympathetically and impartially as possible. This is the biggest moral dilemma of my professional life.
Yes, I should return
Children need to be in school. They need to be learning. This includes academic learning as well as social and emotional learning. They also need to be in school for their wellbeing and mental health.
(2) Vulnerable children
Vulnerable, disadvantaged and previously “lower attaining” children would be particularly better off if back in school.
Parents need to go back to work, for the sake of their own mental health and well-being, as well as to support their households financially.
The economy needs to be “restarted”. This is not just to make money for the country, businesses or the rich, but because people suffer if the economy suffers.
People are struggling and dying because of lockdown, due to mental health problems, domestic violence, abuse and neglect.
Our government encourages the return to schools and suggests it can be done safely.
Some seem to suggest the virus will be around for a long time, that most people will contract it sooner or later, and that it is better if this happens sooner, as it will limit the negative effects of lockdown and speed up immunity within society.
No I shouldn’t return
(1) Increased exposure equals increased risk of Covid-19 infection
Increased close interaction between people (eg, bubble classes, increased public transport use, parents returning to work) means a greater risk of Covid-19 infection and illness for everyone involved.
(2) Second spike
People will suffer and die due to an early return to school. There seems to be no question of a second spike occurring if the return to schools happens. It is our civic and moral duty to protect our neighbours if we can, and not put them in direct danger and at increased risk.
(3) Vulnerable children
Vulnerable, disadvantaged and previously “lower attaining” children who do not return to school on 1 June will be even worse off. This is because teachers and schools will be less able to make phonecalls, provide virtual classrooms or send differentiated work/resources to those children and families, which is what we have been doing since lockdown began.
(4) Economic alternatives
The economy could be bolstered and protected in other ways. There is plenty of money in our society to protect our economy: the government could tax or borrow from the wealthiest in this unprecedented time in order to steady the economy, provide for the most vulnerable and save lives.
(5) Not safe
The government’s argument that this return can be done safely seems flawed. False, misleading and ambiguous promises have been used, based on possibilities and cherry-picked evidence, not rigorous scientific research and facts. Medical professionals and scientists have criticised the government’s claims over safety. There are still shortages of protective equipment and social distancing will not be possible. There is not the time, money, people or resources available to provide anything like what is needed to maintain adequate safety levels.
(6) Herd immunity arguments seem cruel and unproven
Increased close interaction and exposure to other households will mean that some in our society will suffer and/or die earlier than they might have otherwise. It will most probably mean that more people in general will die from Covid-19; they will be mainly the old and vulnerable. This seems extremely cruel. It is comparable to sacrificing people now in the hope that it will have a positive long-term effect. There just isn’t the evidence to justify this. This increased exposure might be beneficial, in that it might build up immunity within society, but this is not certain, and many alternative strategies are available.
(7) Unrealistic expectations of teaching and learning
Teaching and learning will not resemble normality. We will not have normal numbers in school. Staff and children will be experiencing high anxiety and uncertainty, and cannot be expected to teach and learn as they would normally. Staff in school will not have access to the resources, spaces or colleagues they usually rely upon to deliver the curriculum.
I am sympathetic to all these arguments. They each have their own merits. None are stupid or ridiculous. But they are contradictory. We have to weigh up what is the best decision, given the evidence we have.
I am particularly concerned by the long-term human impact of the lockdown and the slowing of the economy. This impact is extremely hard to predict, analyse and measure. We simply don’t know how damaging lockdown will be in the long term, compared with the direct impact of Covid-19 itself, which is easier and quicker to analyse statistically. We don’t have the research or adequate evidence to suggest what the long-term impact will be. However, we do have research and evidence that the proposed increased movement in society will be extremely damaging in the short term, due to increased Covid-19 infection, illness and death.
I am always most sympathetic to protecting and supporting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society, as are most education professionals, in my experience. The manipulative rhetoric in some newspapers suggests that those who challenge a return to schools are somehow letting down this group. This is outrageous. I have been in a bubble of children of key workers and the most vulnerable or disadvantaged children since the lockdown began. I wholeheartedly support continuing and expanding this service in schools, but this is not what has been proposed.
I have worked in more than 30 schools in and around London. Logistically, I believe it will be extremely difficult to carry out bubble classes successfully and safely in the majority of schools. It will be stressful for all, it will be detrimental to many, and it will be dangerous. Our buildings, our staff, our children, our resources and our culture simply aren’t prepared for this. I know more people will die if we go back to schools at this time. I don’t want to be responsible for that in any way.
I am still undecided about what I will tell my headteacher on Monday afternoon, but I strongly believe the process of reflecting on these arguments is vital for all education professionals.
The New Statesman