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Teachers on the front line: Government threats, delays and U-turns are jeopardising safety

Boris Johnson and a group of children pictured in a school playground, all of them holding out both arms at shoulder height.
Boris Johnson visits Bovingdon Primary Academy.
Photo credit: UK Prime Minister, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Yet another government U-turn has followed teaching unions’ call to keep all schools closed following the recent surge in new variant Covid-19 cases. Primary schools were due to re-open on Monday 4 January, and until the day before Boris Johnson was adamant that schools were still safe. Yet the very next day he announced that schools should move to online learning until mid-February as part of a third national lockdown. Now that the country is into the third lockdown, the re-opening date for schools will probably be pushed back still further, perhaps until after Easter. The government’s decisions have followed a predictable pattern of delays, U-turns and threats of legal action that jeopardise teachers’ and students’ safety, and cause anxiety and uncertainty among parents.

Putting the burden of testing on to schools

On top of this, the government introduced a further requirement on schools to undertake lateral flow testing of all pupils before schools re-open. This was announced just before Christmas, when teachers were already exhausted and demoralised. Teaching unions responded angrily that this was an “undeliverable” demand and urged schools to delay preparations until January. Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is not possible to recruit and train all the people needed to carry out tests and put in place the processes that would be necessary.”

In Brighton and Hove there was a call for further information on the funding and staffing of such a huge testing programme. A local headteacher reported, “The wellbeing of head teachers in our city has never been lower. School staff should not be expected to run these tests. Providing testing kits without trained staff to use them is simply not right.” Yet by the end of 2020, Gavin Williamson reiterated his “absolute confidence” that schools would and should be ready for mass testing with an extra week to prepare. The UK regulator has now refused to authorise the use of lateral tests, because they can give false negative results. This undermines their use in schools as a means of controlling the virus. Despite this, the Department for Education (DfE) has continued to assert that lateral testing will go ahead.

Laptop cronyism

With schools resuming online learning, the importance of children having access to laptops has increased. The DfE claims that it is providing “hundreds of thousands” of laptops to disadvantaged children, but schools report that they feel let down because there are long waits or they are not receiving them at all.

Moreover, the Good Law Project has found that the contract for most of the million laptops on order was awarded to a firm run by a Tory donor, which is providing sub-standard devices at twice the price, often infected with a malware virus. The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, has called for an urgent investigation. The Good Law Project has now launched a judicial review against the government for failing to provide adequate resources to the most vulnerable children, who are still unable to access online teaching.

Keeping schools open safely

If you compare safety measures in schools in the UK to those in Europe and around the world, it is clear that the UK has introduced far less stringent requirements than elsewhere. For example, in Spain, France and Greece, as well as most parts of south east Asia, face masks are mandatory for staff and all pupils both inside and outside the classroom. Elsewhere in Europe, face coverings are required on arrival and departure and advised, though not compulsory, in classrooms. France and Poland have introduced staggered attendance, to enable half class sizes, with online learning on other days.

In November the independent SAGE group criticised the government for giving confusing and often contradictory advice to schools on Covid safety and even presenting misleading information on the risks to teachers. The group has put forward a series of recommendations for increased safety in schools. These include encouraging secondary school students to wear face coverings in classrooms as well as corridors; reducing class sizes and introducing staggered attendance; and adequate provision of laptops for periods of online learning. These all seem eminently sensible proposals, but they require additional funding to schools which is currently unavailable.

Should schools re-open?

I am sure that most people would want to see schools open if it is safe to do so, but there is growing scientific evidence that children are more susceptible to the new Covid variant and therefore more likely to spread it than before.

Yet until a few weeks ago, Boris Johnson still asserted that “the problem isn’t that schools are unsafe”, though he now acknowledges that they can be “vectors for transmission”. Teaching unions are “relieved that the government has finally bowed to the inevitable” but frustrated that such “chaotic announcements” have created avoidable uncertainty and disruption for teachers, pupils and parents. The National Education Union has reported huge anxiety among teachers about having to return to school unprotected.

Even prior to Johnson’s announcement, Brighton and Hove City Council had told primary schools to move to remote learning because of the rapid rise in new variant Covid cases in the area – a 60% increase in one week: “We must do this to protect our NHS from being overwhelmed and ensure that our city’s children, school staff and the wider community are kept as safe as possible.” The council is also seeking “urgent clarity” from the government to ensure that school staff are included in priority groups for vaccinations.

The school return date is now likely to be after Easter, but the government is refusing to commit to the actual date, although Gavin Williamson is pledging to give schools two weeks’ notice. There will probably be a few more U-turns before that.

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