With cases surging and hospitals overwhelmed, schools must prepare to operate remotely until half term. Rob Owen is an NEU lead rep for a major multi-academy trust.
On 30 December, the government managed the unenviable feat of carrying out two incoherent public statements in a matter of hours. They did so on a day where there were 981 recorded Covid-19 deaths and London hospitals reported a 114% occupancy of A&E beds, with 62.4% of them being Covid-19 patients several weeks before hospitalisations can be expected to peak.
First Gavin Williamson addressed the House of Commons to announce that they would be delaying the full reopening of schools and colleges. The last-minute guidance was then revised twice within the next 24 hours. Then Boris Johnson stumbled through a press conference explaining that it was not in fact the school buildings themselves but the interactions between humans within them that was increasing the spread of Covid-19. Yet, behind the ineptitude, the substance of what was announced was significant and marked an uneasy compromise between keeping end-of-year exams at all costs and the scientific call for a closure of schools to stop the pandemic overwhelming the NHS.
Myth of the Covid-secure school
The surging rates of infection in school-aged children is very much a product of government choices both long- and short-term. Put simply, our schools are cramped, overcrowded and under-staffed. As a result, even the schools with the best intentions and organisation can’t avoid packing students together in small rooms with classes in excess of 30 students plus adults for much of the day. While year groups in secondary schools are generally classed as ‘bubbles’, interactions within these bubbles (often of up to 200 different households) cannot be policed during lesson transitions or breaks given the number of staff available.
The level of chaos in the majority of schools has been massively under-reported to sustain a false argument about the impact of school closure. The choice is not between an idealised education-as-normal or rising inequality due to remote learning, but between the latter and an education system on the brink of collapse. Before Christmas much of last term had already been ‘lost’ for vast numbers of students who had to isolate as close contacts of infected people. By the end of last term the vast majority of schools had spent weeks with whole year groups, or large chunks of year groups, sent home to isolate with other classes on cover for long periods as staff members fell ill or waited through isolation periods.
Misleading the public
Government announcements repeated attendance figures of over 90% that excluded any students absent due to Covid-19 to allow ministers to present a misleading picture, allied to media footage of socially distanced classrooms from the end of the summer term. Under-reported changes to health and safety guidance in early September were introduced to minimise the number of students told to isolate at the cost of increasing transmissions through schools. As a result, the infection rates amongst age groups in education is higher than infection rates in any other age group.
Unrealistic hopes of ‘mass testing’ in January
The government approach to this term hinges on two things: their determination to maintain public exams no matter the cost and the ‘magic bullet’ of mass testing. Like the earlier changes to health and safety it is a move dictated more by the attempt to keep schools open at all costs than to bring down transmission rates. Schools are to use cheap lateral flow tests, which give results within 20 minutes but lack the reliability of more conventional PCR Covid-19 tests and are supposed to be carried out by trained individuals. Where trials were run in some schools, army staff were brought in to set up and run testing. Estimates suggest that larger schools will need in excess of 15 staff trained and dedicated to carrying out the tests and space to conduct them in. The vast majority of schools have neither, and the much-vaunted army support will be largely limited to advice over Zoom.
More problematically the most recent evaluation of the equivalent mass testing programme in Liverpool has found that the tests missed 60% of positive infections and had no impact on reducing infection rates. The current proposals for schools would see close contacts of positive cases remaining in school but having daily tests, weakening the existing health and safety procedures in schools. Concerns raised since before the Liverpool trial of the false sense of security given by inaccurate negative results are now increasingly backed by hard data.
Many teachers have been at breaking point due to the additional workload of having to do every bit of work twice – once for those in school and once for those isolating. Government handling of the pandemic risks driving another wave of teachers to leave schools. Adding this additional burden onto already overstretched school staff is both unrealistic and unreasonable over the medium term.
Few of us would be teachers if we didn’t believe education was of huge value to the students we work with or that schools, however imperfect, were an important social institution. Teachers largely want to be in the classroom and most, including myself, were pleased to be back in September. However, the measures put in place were quickly shown to be insufficient to break chains of transmission and the wheels gradually started to come off as the term progressed. It is now undeniable that the infection does spread through school-age students and that the rate it does so increases with the wider rate of infection.
A return to school ahead of bringing down infection rates will make it impossible to bring down case numbers before enough people are vaccinated.
A return to school based on mass testing through existing staffing will mean burning out more school staff and intensifying the pre-existing crisis in teacher retention.
A return to school ahead of bringing down infection rates will inevitably mean unplanned chaos in schools on a larger scale than last term.
Education workers and their union reps therefore deserve our active solidarity in opposing a premature and dangerous return to full reopening of schools and colleges.