There is only one clear path to reopening schools

16 Apr 2020, 17:38

Letting our hopes of returning to school get the better of our reasoning about doing it safely only risks putting back the date we can reopen, writes Mary Bousted

There has been too much loose talk lately. Yesterday, one MAT CEO wrote in these pages that schools should lead the way out of lockdown and return in mid-May. But that bold statement was heavily caveated. There should be community testing and antibody testing for teachers, the author said. His clarion cry was reported in the national press. The caveats were not.

It’s because of loose talk that I decided recently that the Today programme was bad for my health. I have found myself shouting at my radio and the repeated argument that, because children don’t get COVID-19 badly, schools should be amongst the first institutions to reopen as lockdown eases.

Are people blind to the fact that children have teachers in their classrooms? And support staff, school leaders and other adults, all of whom are more vulnerable and some of whom could suffer severe or even fatal consequences? That children live with their families?

Thankfully, this morning’s Today programme was better for my blood pressure for two chief reasons.

First, the lead interview with one of the government’s chief COVID advisers, Professor Niall Fergusson was clear and realistic. Asked whether schools could re-open as a first step out of lockdown, Professor Ferguson replied that any such consideration “really requires a single minded emphasis in government, and the health system, of scaling up testing and putting in place the ability to track down cases in the community and contact tracing”. This is because, he went on to warn, “if we relax measures too much then we’ll see a resurgence of transmission. If we want to re-open schools, let people get back to work, then we need to keep transmission down in another manner.”

Professor Ferguson added a final warning: “It’s not going back to normal. We will have to maintain significant levels of social distancing – probably indefinitely until we have a vaccine available.”

The problem, of course, is that the government has not yet met a single one of its testing targets for front line NHS staff (one in three of whom, when tested, are COVID positive). Nor has a reliable antibody test been produced.

What are the chances then that Professor Ferguson’s essential conditions can be rolled out in schools by mid-May?

We are surely united in wondering why this needed to be said at all

The second reason I was cheered this morning was another very important interview, with Katharine Birbalsingh, the headteacher of Michaela School. She and I heartily disagree on most things, but I fully empathised with her evident exasperation at being asked whether social distancing could be practised in schools.

“I don’t want people to perpetuate the lie, and it is a lie,” Ms Birbalsingh replied, “that social distancing [in schools] is possible. It just isn’t.” The NEU agrees, and we are surely united in wondering why this needed to be said at all.

On Tuesday, Kevin Courtney and I wrote to Boris Johnson. We asked him to share with us the government’s modelling of the increased number of cases and mortalities among children, their parents, carers and extended families, and their teachers and support staff, as a result of reopening schools.

We asked whether the government’s modelling would be based on concrete plans to establish regular testing of children and staff, the availability of appropriate PPE and enhanced levels of cleaning in schools – all of which schools are experiencing severe difficulties with.

And we asked for the government’s latest evidence concerning the groups of people who are most vulnerable to fatal or life-changing consequences as a result of the virus, for example those who live in crowded accommodation, those with different comorbidities and those from diverse ethnic groups, ages and sexes.

We made clear we thought reopening schools before these questions could be answered satisfactorily would be foolhardy. The only sensible line to take – the NEU’s line – is that schools and colleges should only reopen when it is as safe as possible to do so.

Lockdown is taking its toll, and the reality of our situation is only now truly dawning. The conditions are not yet in place to even begin to envisage when schools might reopen, and loose talk only serves to give mixed messages about social distancing. At present, social distancing is the only protection we have against the spread of COVID-19.

The shortest route to reopening schools is to observe it respectfully, for as long as it takes.

Your thoughts

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  1. Phil Sharp

    Well done to the NEU for standing up for teachers – something some MAT CEOs need to start doing. Teachers are not going to be lambs to the slaughter or lab rats in the fight to save the world!

    Teachers are not the saviours of the world all the time – they too have anxieties and fear believe it or not.

    Finally, a respected headteacher has spoken sense (Katherine Birbalsingh) and has said that social distancing is impossible in schools. Anyone who patrols the corridors will testify to this.

  2. Kim Lynch

    I have willingly gone into school to care fir key worker children but the idea of being sacrificed for my years of dedication and hard work makes me angry and very very worried .

  3. Sue Clark Pomponi

    Well said. It is terrible to have schools closed and children need to be in school but not at the expense of human life. Fail to understand how so many people are recommending schools reopen when the only question that should be asked to individual teachers is – Are you prepared to return to school, risk infection and possibly death and at the same time infect your family and maybe have someone die there too? Are you prepared to console your pupils if a member of their family dies as a result of one of them coming to school? Are you prepared to take the infection you have picked up from school due to the impossibility of social distancing and spread it to others on the bus or train? Are you willing to take the infection you have picked up to your hospital so you can risk NHS staff dying because of you being there? Are you prepared to die and be replaced within 24 hours but allow your family to never be able to replace you in their lives? Teachers are the only ones who should be asked about reopening schools and I think their answers will sound very loudly. DONT ALLOW MORE AVOIDABLE DEATHS – KEEP SCHOOLS CLOSED – save lives and protect the NHS!

  4. Clare French

    I am a teacher in a sen specialist independent school. Our leaders keep saying all in as normal! We return next week and the high majority of our students are 1:1 therefore social distancing can’t be applied. School are expecting all staff to come in regardless of Pupil numbers and therefore increasing risk of spread. Staff and attending students have come in in taxi’s from various homes where we do not know of cases, probability and then all returning after mixing at school. Is this really sensible or even following government guidelines? Where do we stand as staff of this matter and are our school leaders following a sensible pathway?

  5. Victoria Spicer

    I agree teachers need PPE before opening schools up again but also feel schools really shouldn’t be reopened until September. Children can still carry the virus and dome live with elderly, vulnerable relatives or parents with severe health problems. If we send children back to school before the virus is over we could be endangering the elderly, vulnerable and those with severe health problems. Do we really want this?????

  6. Allan rhoden

    Regular testing is a must. Schooling require not just staff and children but a vast and often older network of pre and after school carers. The vulnerable groups. Studies need to carried out on the whole picture of the transfer of Cv before millions of potencies carriers are released from the lockdown

  7. James Beag

    “Are people blind to the fact that children have teachers in their classrooms?”, No they’re not blind, they just don’t care. We’re beginning to discover the priorities and self-centredness of individuals when under pressure and unfortunately for the majority of us, it’s disturbing, socialist society indeed!. I understand that people are losing jobs and money due to the shutdowns, to their credit the government are helping, or trying to help where they can, albeit with the delays that come from mobilising such a diverse and vast economic bailout at short notice, but the fact is that a lot of ‘parents’ don’t know what to do with their children, they’re used to having their own lives, they’re not used to seeing them as often as they are, there are only so many programmes on Netflix and Disney and they want to return back to handing their problems over to someone else to take care of (but don’t think they won’t complain about how you’re doing it, at a vastly reduced cost to them in comparison to private education) and worst of all their selfishness will lead to their children being at risk and the deaths of other people, but they’re able to get on with whatever it is they normally do, so the world is alright.

  8. Teachers should not return to work unless the government have enough capacity of testing everyone as it would be far too big risk to be amongst teenagers, who do not adhere to the social distancing rule!!

  9. In all honesty my kids will probably not be going back to school until September, my baby girl has cystic fibrosis she is only 13 months and has already spent just under half her life in hospital. Until I feel this is under control and not a risk to her my boys will be off school. It’s hard with all of us together 24/7 being mum, teacher, peace maker and ref. I love them all and job is to keep them all safe. All we can be is are best and hope it’s good enough. Be safe and stay well.

  10. Nichola Barrs

    I don’t know any child that is capable of proper social distancing, especially in a classroom setting. I can only imagine that the death toll of teachers and staff will be higher than anticipated and totally unacceptable. I am a mother of five children, I have underlying health issues. Four of children are in the 10 to 18 year old category that has a 0.2% death rate. I’m not sure how many are at school in this age range, but undoubtedly, it will be in the millions. This makes 0.2% a much scarier figure than at first it might seem. Teachers and children the first to be thrown into the Coronavirus test tube? Nobody knows how applying this will work in the “unmodelled” real world. Another “Care home scandal” waiting in the wings in my frightened opinion.

  11. My year 1 class of 28 cannot keep a few centimetres apart never mind 2 metres. I do not want to return back to work until this virus is more under control.

    Teachers are never taken seriously in this country and if schools reopen next month, will be expected to be used at childcare for the whole nation as half of the parents will not feel comfortable to send their children in anyway.

  12. Alexa Forbes

    I could not agree more, thank you, Mary. This is an incredibly tough time for everyone and we’re all doing our best to set great work to enrich, stretch & educate remotely in a way that students will enjoy and all abilities can access. Whilst we’re doing this we’re protecting each other and the NHS by staying at home. I am horrified by the suggestion that schools returning early is acceptable for all the reasons everyone has stated. I’d like to add an extra note to emphasise the terror this must bring for the many families where there are students or family members who are vulnerable. I cannot imagine the horror of taking extreme care in lockdown, returning to school and unwittingly bringing home a virus that kills a family member. Let’s also not forget that many are dying who do not fit into a vulnerable category. I am appalled that there is even a suggestion that this can be considered prematurely in terms of ‘acceptable losses‘.

  13. Kellan

    Thank you to The NEU for looking at the science oF the pandemic and thinking of the risk to life we would be taking , if proper measures are not completed .
    Schools should not be treated as the petri dish for the rest of society.

  14. John Pratchett

    The school leadership teams will make the teachers, T.A.’s & other support staff feel like heroes, when in reality they’re being led into the lion’s den. Many will follow like sheep!

  15. Mark Watson

    I agree with pretty much all of what has been said above. But could someone point me in the direction of the actual quotes from Ministers and MAT CEOs that are calling for schools to be opened quickly without pre-conditions?

    Michael Gove come out today and said the Sunday Times report that schools could reopen as early as 11 May was not true. Gavin Williamson said yesterday that there was no expected date for re-opening schools. I haven’t seen any quotes from MAT CEOs calling for school to open without, like Hamid Patel did, making it subject to being safe.

    In this time of no sport / no celebrity gossip etc. the media are more hysterical than ever in trying to fashion something scandalous to worry us all. But just because Murdoch can’t bleat on about Brexit, and the Mail can’t shame female celebrities on holiday, why do people believe the nonsense they’re coming out with about schools reopening?

    The “loose talk” that Mary Bousted is referring to seems to be created solely by the media, and life is breathed into it by people like her reacting like it’s official Government policy.

  16. Julie Green

    We should look at how other countries such as Germany or New Zealand have tackled COVID-19.

    I was working as an EFL Teacher in Singapore when the SARS virus hit the country and they handled it very well. However, COVID-19 is different and social distancing in schools, even small independent ones, is, perhaps, impossible without strict measures in place. Anybody entering a school would have to be tested in advance and possibly have their temperature taken before entering the building (this happened in schools in Singapore during the SARS virus).

    What has become apparent during this pandemic are those schools and private agencies who do not show enough concern about their staff. I work with children and adults with SpLDs such as dyslexia and SEMH issues. However, as I am self-employed, the school contracts have vanished until things get back to normal. One of the companies I work for (subcontracted) only cares about the money; another has been very considerate about their staff and all the work is online now. In other words, some businesses have dealt with this crisis badly whilst others have acted quickly and put measures into place that protect their staff and students’ health, safety and well-being. I have been bitterly disappointed with some companies and very impressed by others who have made sure that SEN students and LAC are not left in the dark.

    Working on a one-to-one basis with a student who has been diagnosed with dyslexia is very different to being in charge of a class of 30 or more (no doubt large class sizes will become a thing of the past-thank goodness!). Perhaps class sizes will be 10 or 20 now. Who knows? As for PPE, perhaps we all need to be using this?

  17. Chris Nicholson

    Never has there been a time of such importance that teachers and lectures work together to protect pupils students and staff to save lives of all sectors of the population A further spike will affect us all

  18. Simone

    I am a school teacher in Devon as well as a mum of 4. My two year old, who although has not been given the official paperwork for “clinically vulnerable”, had pneumonia last year (nearly dying) and a subsequent weak chest following this; catching virus upon virus and needing hospitalisation twice since. I am quite happy to work hard from home to deliver home schooling to my year 4/5 class but have been told I have to return. To do home schooling from school whilst also teaching a year 6 group (not my year group). If I don’t all pay will stop! Surely this isn’t right?