We have built a world where parents need the childcare provided by the school system. In some families parents are working at night, or rising at 5am to sustain a struggling business before their children wake up. They may more urgently feel the need for schools to reopen than those who can happily juggle a few hours of homeschooling with working from home.
But think about what primary teachers are facing with the prospect of suddenly going back to school with gaggles of five- and six-year-olds. As one infant teacher said on the radio this week: “We’ll have six classes back, so we need at least 12 classrooms, but only have nine. The government has admitted we can’t socially distance, so they’re playing with our health. We are taking the children’s toys away, because they have to be constantly cleaned, what will they do all day? I’ve got four pages of issues like this!”
On the other hand, a headteacher on the same show said: “Sitting around saying it’s too hard is no model for our young people.” Solutions had to be found.
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Schools are now hurriedly buying washing troughs and putting up sanitiser stations. Marking parent drop-off areas. Deep-cleaning canteens. Children will play in chalked circles on playgrounds. For a moment it sounds doable. But then, a child coughs in a narrow corridor; another falls and hurts his knee. He’s crying, it’s bleeding. A child with special needs requires help with feeding and there is no protective equipment. And what happens if there’s a fight?
Now imagine: it’s your daughter, your husband, or your best friend who is teaching. Are you happy for them to jump into these situations? It is too easy to be dismissive about low potential harm unless it’s your loved one taking the risk. It is vital that trade unions question hard and push for the safest possible conditions before schools can reopen.
Certainty on safety is not possible, though. The virus is still mysterious and new complexities may yet arise. The experts have admitted a vaccine may never come. But imagine: it is your home at risk because you can’t work, or your sanity dwindling from the 57th day of home schooling, or your six-year-old sobbing because they miss their friends. Your heart’s calculator may now calibrate the risks differently. Schools reopening, at least in some form, would be a lifeline. We need to be smart about this.
In Italy, Spain and Ireland schoolchildren will not return until autumn at the earliest. Wales and Scotland are leaning the same way. Yet, in England, politicians are putting their efforts into fighting with the unions for an early return – and one that initially offers just three year groups a poor, socially distanced, in-a-school-but-not-really-school experience for, at best, six weeks before the end of term.
Meanwhile, many parents will still be unable to work because they have a child in another year group stuck at home but now have the added complexity of a heavily sanitised school run on top of it all.
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Gavin Williamson, the education secretary in England, should stop looking for fights. Instead, he should pause, and focus schools on doing distance learning really well by setting minimum standards for the remainder of the academic year. It seems right, for example, that every child should speak with a teacher at least once a week and receive meaningful feedback on work they have completed during that time.
Meanwhile, schools could survey which parents need childcare, and gradually those children could be integrated alongside the 2% of children still at school each day because their parent is a key worker or they are considered vulnerable. With appetites low for schooling, it is likely demand would be manageable.
Why this approach has been missed is not clear. The Department for Education’s own scientific adviser admits he hasn’t seen any modelling around reopening schools and says the evidence on transmission is mixed. Is this about getting people back to work, or is it a classic Conservative trick of fuelling union strife to divert public attention from government failings and aim it towards a profession with a well-protected salary?
Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be about safety or learning. There are no easy answers but Williamson can find smarter solutions. The question is whether he has the courage.
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