The writer is co-principal of Passmores Academy in Harlow, England
Opening to students earlier this month was one of the most uplifting experiences of my 25 years in education. When lockdown started in March, teachers had more form-filling and remote-lesson planning than they could ever need. What was missing was the best part of the job, the young people. The community evidently missed school too. Attendance at my secondary school was in the high-90th percentile when we first opened and has remained that way since.
It was important to get the reopening right. Staff mitigated as much risk as possible. We have crowbarred “bubbles” of students together knowing full well that, in our case, one in three students have a sibling in a different bubble. We wipe down basketballs, disinfect desks between classes and badger students to use hand sanitiser, while ignoring the £6,000 per month extra in cleaning costs. It is exhausting. Every week feels like a month, but we are open and the community continues to send in their children.
The biggest challenges are still ahead. I am dreading the news of our first confirmed Covid-19 case. We have not made wearing masks compulsory — yet — but it is a conversation that crops up every day with staff anxious for themselves and also the families they go home to. I have made videos and spoken to students to explain why face coverings are a socially responsible thing to wear.
But each time I do, I receive dozens of emails from parents explaining why they will not support wearing masks. The reasons range from quite understandable medical concerns regarding asthma through to pages of information on why coronavirus is a government conspiracy — these emails often mention 5G towers. The phrase “rock and a hard place” has rarely felt more appropriate.
The UK now knows that while schools are, of course, about educating young people, they are also instrumental to the functioning of the economy. Parents need their children to be in a safe environment if they are to go to work. I have long recognised that this is a key part of our role — my school doesn’t close for “snow days”. But we cannot operate without the support of the government. Our success is intertwined with theirs.
While I have sympathy for government leaders who have had to deal with truly unprecedented and difficult situations, that sympathy has started to wear thin. Schools have needed ministers to take the pressure off by making decisions centrally — so as not to put us at war with the small but vociferous members of our community that are not in support of social distancing. But the government has let us down. It has felt at times that our leaders prioritise electoral survival over schools’ functioning.
Considering the “we are in it together” rhetoric delivered by ministers over the summer, it would be logical to assume that the government had done everything possible to allow schools not just to open, but to stay open. The UK was not the first country to start easing lockdown and the message from other nations was clear. Test and trace is vital.
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At least 10 people out of the 1,400 who attend or work at my school feel they need a Covid-19 test on most days. Families are rightly being cautious about the virus. Suspected cases are far from rare.
Yet teachers and students are often absent for over a week because they cannot access a test, or are being offered one hundreds of miles away. Staff, especially, need as close-to-instant access to testing as possible. One teacher teaches 150-plus children a day. It will not take many of them to be off, waiting for a test, to close our schools.
Educators have been told repeatedly by ministers that the country is grateful for the work we do. But words ring hollow when they are not followed by deeds. If we do have to close schools because there aren’t enough tests, or teachers cannot get them, it will not be the fault of a union, academy or headteacher. The blame will rest at Number 10’s door.
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