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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 Sunday 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. 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.

The government has followed this pattern all through the pandemic, but it has been heightened over the past few weeks. Just a few days before the end of last term, Greenwich and Islington councils advised schools to move to online learning because of the increasing numbers of Covid cases, but Gavin Williamson used emergency legislation to coerce them to remain open, despite scientific advice that closing schools would help to bring down the reproduction rate, or R number, at a vital time before families got together at Christmas.

Headteachers and teaching unions expressed anger at this draconian action, which forced Greenwich to back down at the last minute. Paul Whiteman, leader of the headteachers’ union NAHT, called the government’s threat “a disgrace”, while Mary Bousted of the National Education Union responded, “This is a desperate move from government ministers who have lost the plot.” At the time, private schools such as Eton had already sent pupils home early. These governments threats were particularly galling to teachers who had worked so hard to keep schools open all term, despite an ongoing lack of financial support or clear safety guidance from the government.

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 only last week, Gavin Williamson reiterated his “absolute confidence” that schools would and should be ready for mass testing with an extra week to prepare. This was followed by a(nother) last-minute U-turn on the return date for secondary students, which was then been pushed back until 11 January for exam groups and 18 January for all other students.

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.

Uncertainty and disruption

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 despite announcing a third lockdown and school closures, Boris Johnson still asserts 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 on Monday, 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.

Brighton and Hove MPs have “slammed the dithering PM” for acting too late. Caroline Lucas stated, “His communications have been all over the place and his shambolic response, dither and delay has cost lives and is continuing to cost lives.”

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