In a few weeks, some nine million children across the UK are expected to return to school. The government remains adamant that all years will return, and has produced a labyrinthine set of measures which they insist will reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission; the Prime Minister has meanwhile written of “a moral duty” to return all children to school in September.
But an increasing number of concerns are being raised about the safety of children, staff and families, and the increased risks to wider society; as the author Michael Rosen wrote in the Guardian on 4 August: “Dear Gavin Williamson, are you sure schools will be safe in September?”
Speaking to a number of teachers and worried parents in Gloucestershire, there is indeed fear about safety and the risks of fully opening schools on a ‘business as usual’ model; as one parent told me: “As every parent knows, children are brilliant at passing on respiratory infections. My son has serious asthma and I am afraid he will be more susceptible to catching the virus in his large school of 1,500 pupils.”
Teachers who worked tirelessly during the national closure of schools – either in school supporting the children of key workers and the most vulnerable, setting and marking work, or providing support via various tech platforms – are of course anxious to see a full return of their pupils, and resent the accusation that they are somehow dragging their feet.
Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, argues that schools face a massive challenge ahead and need clarification over the muddled guidance from the DfE and proper collaborative working between the profession and government to produce a plan for educational recovery. Meanwhile, the wearing of face coverings in secondary schools has been rejected by Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, who has argued that the decision is ‘led by the science’ – yet everyone over 11-years old must wear them in shops and on public transport.
Teachers and parents I spoke to felt uneasy about this lack of consistency in public health guidance, and many said that face coverings would provide reassurance and more confidence in returning to school.
While there is still uncertainty in the scientific community about the role of young people in the transmission of Covid-19, the degree of asymptomatic transmission by children and the lack of current data, means parents and school staff are rightly anxious.
To prevent a second wave, relaxing social distancing rules – including the full re-opening of schools in September – should be accompanied by an effective, large scale, population-wide testing and tracing system. So far the NHS test-and-trace system has fallen short: only half of contacts are being traced, and it is difficult to find out the percentage of people being tested.
Boris Johnson’s rhetorical bluster does little to instil any confidence. It is not just words we need, but action to ensure schools can open safely.
Barbara Morrison lives in Gloucestershire, and spent many years as a teacher, at home and abroad