The shouting about schools policy has got louder from all sides over the last week. We need to listen to those on the ground and find creative ways forward.
So here we are, with a large number of schools closed for face-to-face teaching for what could be several weeks, except for vulnerable children and those of key workers, and widespread uncertainty about how this week will play out for many. Over the last few days parents will have received numerous updates from schools. Where we live head teachers are sounding increasingly exasperated by the late notice of such policy changes when – in our region – it was clear in late November that things were headed this way and indeed, had the schools closed earlier, we likely wouldn’t be one of the top areas for infections now.
Our primary schools are staying closed for the next two weeks at least, but those in other tier 4 areas of the country, where we are told infection levels are likely to rise, are allowed to remain open, which doesn’t appear to make any kind of sense unless you think that schools don’t spread the virus. Those in areas where the new variant has been spreading can tell you that they undoubtedly do – and fast.
Instead we have almost everyone shouting at everyone else on Twitter. I saw a Tweet at the weekend just saying how hard this is for working parents. Shouldn’t there be some support? the [inevitably female] journalist who tweeted asked [we know from the previous lockdown that women will be worst hit by the decision]. In piled lots of teachers and others saying schools are not about childcare and that parents should take responsibility for their own kids.
Amid all the shouting, most people have some kind of a point. Schools are not childcare and teachers are human beings who have been horribly vilified by some newspapers in all of this and who will have underlying health issues and relatives with health issues. It is clearly not safe to be in a classroom of 30 children, many without masks, with poor ventilation and little social distancing as many have been. We were told two teachers at my daughter’s school were very seriously ill in December. And there is no way, for instance, that my son’s class can social distance at all in the small classrooms in a village school. Indeed, the girl who sits next to him tested positive with no symptoms in early December. By that time he had already been off school isolating because my other daughter caught the virus from her best friend at secondary school. In the meantime, my younger daughter’s year group half closed, reopened for some, including my daughter, then closed totally – in the middle of what should have been the GCSE mocks. People who are against school closures argue about the mental health impact of closure. What about the mental health impact of constant disruption and uncertainty or of worrying that you may infect your mum or dad or granny? The whole thing is clearly a mental health disaster and will exacerbate existing inequalities, but mental health and inequalities can be dealt with if there is the political will. Death, as my family know only too painfully, is irreversible.
Inevitably more schools will close and others will stay closed longer [when I say closed that does not mean that schools are not working. They are on their knees, providing face to face teaching for vulnerable kids and those of key workers, providing remote lessons, setting up mass testing whose efficacy is not guaranteed, somehow getting kids doing mocks, etc, etc]. Then there are nurseries, not mentioned in all the announcements on schools, but which have been crying out for support for months and many of whom say they face closure due to Covid. Working around small children in particular is a nightmare as most people who have done it can testify.
It is on the ground where stuff actually gets done. Schools, together with local authorities, need to be given the wherewithal to decide how to operate safely and to think creatively about how to do that with less constant disruption and anticipate problems as soon as they appear, not a month later. Parents who have to work while homeschooling – with mums taking the biggest load, as we know from the research – should be given support, but it doesn’t look like much is coming. It looks as if it will once again be down to employers to be understanding – and, while many are, some either aren’t or are too besieged by their own survival fears. Furlough for childcare reasons is left down to employers and we have the data to show many employers are not allowing it. Instead, parents are left with few options – asking employers to be flexible, using annual leave [which is not inexhaustible] and taking untold weeks of unpaid leave which is likely to be unaffordable for many. Many risk losing their jobs – our surveys show a significant number already have because of childcare issues.
And to those saying that parents need to take responsibility, most parents are trying to be responsible by working to keep a roof over their families’ heads and food on the table. No-one – I repeat no-one – predicted a global pandemic when they had children.
So a little bit of understanding on all sides would be much appreciated. Everyone’s situation is different and there are so many terrible ways in which this pandemic is affecting different groups. We need to ignore all those attempting to pit us against each other. Empathy and listening, rather than blaming, is vital. Leadership that encourages this, rather than constantly seeking to point the finger at someone else, is vital. Most of us will get through this, but what kind of people do we want to be at the end of it?