Pupils must return to schools when it is safe, no earlier

On Wednesday 27th January, Boris Johnson made the announcement that in-person teaching in English schools would not resume until at least 8 March. An announcement which likely came much to the dismay of parents struggling to manage homeschooling their children alongside working from home. The staggered return to school buildings, he said, would be conditional on vaccine rollout progress, but Mr Johnson could not confirm that all children would be back at in-person school before the Easter Holidays.

I’m being deliberately careful to watch my words here. That’s because I believe it’s fundamentally misleading to refer to the return of school-age children to their physical school buildings as “schools reopening”. Schools never closed. There is not a secret society of teachers sitting at home doing nothing and laughing. If anything, teachers are working harder than ever.

According to research conducted by Teacher Tapp, 37% of the UK’s teachers spend more than 3 hours of their weekend planning the next week’s lessons, up from 22% last term, when school buildings had been open for in-person teaching. 51% of teachers also reported that they were spending more hours working than they would under ‘normal’ circumstances.

In spite of recent media and political attention on the topic, another interesting statistic uncovered by Teacher Tapp was that only 1% of surveyed teachers believed that they deserved priority vaccination. The only explanation for this can be that teachers are aware of the problem that the government seems incapable of understanding – it’s not the teachers who are the culprits of spreading Covid-19 through schools – it’s the kids.

Thinking on my own schooldays, I commuted to both my high school and college by public transport, at rush hour. There’d regularly be almost a hundred children and adults crammed onto a double-decker bus. As a slightly-shorter-than-average 14-year-old, I have vivid memories of spending the journey to school squished in between the window and someone’s armpit. Even with social distancing and reduced capacity on buses, the number of touchpoints (think poles, stop buttons, card readers, handles) that you touch on a bus or train without even realising is pretty disgusting.

It can’t be a coincidence that England’s Covid case-rate spiked in September/October, when the new school year commenced – with in-person teaching – with case numbers particularly high in the large cities, where children are reliant on public transport to make longer journeys to school.

So, when and how can school buildings reopen for all pupils? It’s clear that online learning is impossible for some age groups, and it’s no-one’s preferred method of teaching and learning.

In another Teacher Tapp report, only 22% of teachers reported being confident that all of their students had done ‘at least some work’ the week before.

What’s clear is that the return to in-person secondary schooling cannot hope to be orchestrated on a national level. The only way to ensure that pupils are able to return to in-person schooling for extended periods of time (i.e. not having to take regular periods of self-isolation) is for community transmission rates to be low. Any attempt to bring secondary-age children back into the classroom before then will be futile, and might even make the situation worse, spreading Covid-19 asymptomatically around their neighbourhoods.

Instead, the government needs to trust teachers, schools and local education authorities to know what’s best for their communities and their pupils. That might mean a few more months of online schooling. But we need to trust that teachers are itching to get back into their classrooms, and that it’ll happen as soon as it’s holistically safe to do so.

Image via Brian J. Maitlis

By Emma Hunt

Culture and Opinion writer