Stressed teacher

It’s less than a week before children across England are due to return to school. With the government steadfast in insisting they will all go back, what are teachers feeling about the risk and how will the NHS cope?

Swathes of the country are now in tier 4 and many teachers are beginning to feel more and more concerned about the prospects of returning to the classroom. Tannice Hemming spoke to one teacher, Julie (not her real name), who teaches Secondary school students in a part of the South East currently within a tier 4 area. 

You can catch up on education, but kids’ mental health is suffering

Julie, who was unable to see one of her adult children over Christmas, was torn on the subject. She said many of her students weren’t looking forward to the Christmas break at all and is more concerned about the mental health of the students rather than their education. 

Right at the beginning of the pandemic, she explained, online learning and teaching was pretty hard. Many of her colleagues did not consider themselves “technically savvy” and struggled with teaching children via a screen. Lockdown happened so suddenly that they simply weren’t prepared. There were both students and staff members who didn’t even own the necessary tech to access nor provide computerised learning, though this was rectified fairly quickly.

A child accessing learning from home, alone – what’s the right balance to strike between kids’ education and society’s safety needs?

From lockdown starting on 23rd March to the summer holidays, the basis of the provision of lessons was mostly trial and error. However, teachers were given full training in the use of MS teams over the summer holidays and things were a lot easier when school resumed in September. 

Risk assessments rendered useless in just hours

The biggest struggle, however, was the constant changing of information and keyworker children were the guinea pigs over the first lockdown when it came to deciding what to do. Performing a risk assessment was one thing, but often those hard decisions were useless by that evening, as yet more guidance was issued to schools about what they should do. 

By the Christmas break, Julie explained, “we were on our knees”. Self-isolating teachers were giving lessons remotely from home and whilst the children seemed to adapt to things very well, the adult staff were struggling. 

Being in a face to face meeting is very different to one performed over a screen. She said that she’s very much a person who sits back and cogitates while weighing up responses, but being “on” all the time and staring back at each participant constantly is exhausting. Learning to cope with the delay (laggy connection) was one thing, but the difference in the communication dynamic was the most exhausting part. Having a particularly expressive face was always her downfall in a face to face meeting, but when she didn’t have a permanent audience, it was easier to “rein her face in”. That is impossible when the entire workforce stares at you when you’re staring at all of them, too.

When children returned to school in September after the summer break, the reality was different to what the media had portrayed, she says; at least in her school. Even the children who had seemingly always hated school were absolutely relieved to be back. They hadn’t mixed with their peers as much as people might think and were craving social interaction. When Julie talked to one student about the two week Christmas break, the student told her she really hoped the government would decide to send students back as planned. The student couldn’t even countenance staying home for the initial two weeks, let alone an extended period.

Challenging political reasoning

Julie doesn’t think too much about her own safety, she said: she can’t worry about it constantly because she just couldn’t cope. However, she does have an elderly parent who is her responsibility and she’s had to reduce contact with many vulnerable loved ones to keep them safe. With the new variant, however, she is understandably concerned and she says when she returns (if she does) in January, she’s going to be more vocal. Not with her colleagues or upper management, but around the political reasoning behind any decisions. She said she’s understandably much more nervous now than previously about the spread of the virus and where schools are responsible for the infection rate. She says all teachers want the children back – of course it is better to have them in school – but at what cost?

When it comes to testing, Julie laughed hollowly. At her school, upper management told them not to worry about it. She told me that she absolutely refused to perform tests on anyone – it is not her responsibility and she would feel so liable for an incorrect result. She said they all just laughed when it was discussed with them. How, when, where would the tests take place? How would they have the time or ability to do so? The logistics of it all were just bamboozling to Julie and her colleagues. There are 1300 children in her school, so how could this possibly happen?

Teachers won’t be expected to test students, but that’s only just been confirmed today

Julie said she wouldn’t blame any parent who decided not to send their child in to school and neither would she blame a parent for deciding to send them, either. She said that, at least in her school, the headteacher would be unlikely to report unauthorised absences to activate any fines. 

So what is a parent to do? Many of us may have already pulled our children from school early to make Christmas safer to mix with friends or family. But what of the rising numbers of infections across the UK and the potential for the Christmas mixing and mass exodus of tier 4 areas exacerbating the issue? The government may well u-turn on its advice and move to online learning yet, but for the moment they are not budging. Even as the cases rack up higher than the first wave. 

Tier 4 branded “toothless”

Independent SAGE member Stephen Reicher yesterday published a five-point emergency plan in the Guardian. Within it, he detailed the I-SAGE opinion that “current tier 4 restrictions are insufficient” to control the spread of the virus (B117 variant). 

Reicher said “Schools should remain closed until buildings are made as safe as possible for pupils and staff. This includes smaller class sizes (achieved through hiring extra teachers and teaching rooms), adequate ventilation and free masks for all pupils.”

Apparently the military are on hand to provide support on testing to schools. However, the personnel will be doing so via phone and online advice – they won’t be conducting the tests. Students will be expected to swab themselves under supervision of a trained member of staff and teachers will not be responsible for the testing process.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) general secretary, Geoff Barton was absolutely clear this morning on BBC Breakfast and said “eminent scientists have said that schools should remain closed” and it was his view that this should be the case until testing systems were up and running. 

Whatever happens, it looks like parents and teachers (and the vast majority of teachers who are parents too) will not be happy with the outcome. Whether it’s the difficulties of home working whilst chivvying or supervising children doing their online learning or sending children to school hoping they don’t bring Covid home, there is no easy answer. With not long to go until the start of term, the government need to put their thinking caps on and maybe even go back to the drawing board. 

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