Why it’s wrong to reopen schools too soon

We seem poised to allow our schools to become another means of spreading the virus, warns David Rosenberg of the National Education Union

Friday, 29th May 2020 — By David Rosenberg

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MY children left school many years ago, so I don’t personally have to confront the vexed question of whether or not there should be a wider reopening of schools from next Monday.

Yet the question still feels very close to my heart.

Why so? Because I taught for 23 happy years in an Islington primary school before I retired in 2015. Many of my close friends are still teaching, and they fear the consequences of the rash decisions being taken right now.

That fear is not just on their own account but extends to all school staff, the children they teach, and the wider group of people they all go home to.

In London, one of the most unequal cities in Europe, many children live in overcrowded accommodation with members of their extended family.

They will all become more vulnerable if our schools reopen too soon.

Teachers know that hundreds of key workers – mainly in the NHS and social care sector but also in public transport – have died after contracting Covid-19 while working with inadequate personal protective equipment, PPE, in jobs where they daily encounter members of the public at close quarters.

Some of them have been Islington residents.

The media lauds key workers as “heroes” for the work they do, but many of them are now dead heroes.

All the teachers I ever worked alongside were completely dedicated to those in their care, but they have no wish become “martyrs”; especially when the government’s hasty efforts to reopen schools seem to be driven not by concern for the safety and welfare of those who learn and teach in our schools but rather by their worries about the continued profitability of “the economy”.

With schools closed to all except the children of key workers, and some children in very vulnerable home situations, most families are struggling to balance work with childcare, but their children’s safety is rightly paramount.

And if that means more childcare and less time available for the work their employers demand, that is a personal sacrifice parents are choosing to make.

Schools are vital hubs in our community. They are places of learning, exploration and creativity where children develop life skills that help them interact with and appreciate others.

But in a country that has recorded the highest number of deaths in Europe, where the government barely has a coherent strategy to manage the Covid-19 crisis, let alone begin to suppress it, we seem poised to allow our schools to become another means of spreading the virus.

We know what we’re dealing with from the ongoing tragedy in the health service and care homes. We don’t need to put our educators and children and young people and their loved ones through the same deadly experiment.

The government’s plan is to reopen the schools, in the first place, to children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.

Anyone with any experience of teaching those younger age groups, as I have had, knows it will be impossible to ensure safe social distancing, and how bored and unmotivated children will become in classrooms stripped of stimulating materials such as books, toys and games to share and learn with together, since these could spread contagion.

The regime needed to keep children, teachers and teaching assistants safe will be unfree for everyone and of little educational value.

It will hinder rather than help their social development.

It is very telling that many of those educational institutions – the misnamed “public” schools – which most of those who are busy formulating government policy attended as young people, have no plans to open until September at the earliest.

They are right.

As are the teaching unions who insist that there can only be a (phased) reopening of schools when thorough risk assessments by all stakeholders have been carried out; when there has been a sustained downward trend in Covid-19 infections and extensive arrangements for testing and contact tracing are in place; and when there is comprehensive access to regular testing for children and school staff. That will not be the case by June 1.

David Rosenberg taught at Hanover Primary School from 1992 to 2015. He is a committee member of Islington NEU.

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