The headlines are full of the news that schools, particularly primary schools in England, are being prepared to open for children in years Reception, 1 and 6 (ages 4-5, 5-6 and 10-11) from Monday 1st June, if possible. That’s two weeks away. Pupils in secondary education who are taking exams next year, current years 10 and 12 (ages 14-15 and 16-17) may ‘get at least some time with their teachers before the holidays’.
Many parents, especially those who are now being encouraged to return to work, are keen for their children to return, while many more are concerned about the safety of their children and their families, as well as school staff.
UK tabloid paper the Daily Mail ran a front page story on Friday 15th May with the headline ‘Let Our Teachers Be Heroes’, and condemning teaching unions for questioning the plans to re-open schools more than they currently are (some schools are partially open for select key worker children).
So what is for the best? How can difficult decisions be made that are reflecting medical and educational wisdom, which may be different to political or editorial ideology? Here’s three reasons why I firmly believe that schools should not re-open to more pupils on 1st June, particularly to Reception and Yr1, or indeed at all until the safety and welfare of pupils and staff can be more confidently assured.
Have you ever spent time with a classroom of 5-year olds?
Young children are great, they have inquisitive, questioning minds, they love to find out things and to have fun learning. But they have absolutely no idea of social distancing, personal space, or in most cases personal hygiene. My wife works in primary education and most Reception and Yr1 classes at any time of the year will be a mix of snotty noses, sticky fingers, grazed knees and tears. Some of them are still not toilet trained when they reach school.
Staff in these year groups become ‘Mummy’ or ‘Daddy’ while these children are in school, and are regularly having to comfort them, pick them up, deal with a million different little things that inevitably bring them near to the children they are supporting.
Add into this mix that 1-in-5 children have additional or special needs, with the added care needs that this brings, and the idea of this all happening safely by spreading out across lots of smaller classes of 15 is so laughable as to be the stuff of farce.
The Government website (see link later in this blog), encourages schools to, for example, ‘promote regular hand washing for 20 seconds with running water and soap or use of sanitiser and ensuring good respiratory hygiene by promoting the catch it, bin it, kill it approach.’ Great words, but have you ever seen a 5-year-old wash their hands? Or seen what happens when they sneeze and use their sleeve as a tissue before anyone can stop them? Have these people ever spent time with a classroom of 5-year-olds?
Schools do not have PPE
Remember that schools have been partially open throughout, with provision being offered for children of key workers. A small number of children are attending each school, with numbers varying but in my local primary it’s around 25 a day.
None of the staff have PPE. None of the pupils do either. The Government is now advising us all to wear a mask when we go to the supermarket, or use public transport, for example, but expect school staff to go unprotected and see children potentially exposed too.
If care workers and the NHS are struggling so badly to get adequate supplies of PPE, and with the general population now clamouring to buy up masks and gloves to go shopping, what hope have schools got of trying to protect their staff and pupils.
And while Yr6 pupils can typically (but not in every case) get to school on their own, for Reception and Yr1 pupils to attend will mean an adult taking them, resulting in crowds gathering at the school gates in the morning and afternoon. Social distancing? I don’t think so.
It’s not just about the kids
One of the main drivers behind trying to increase the number of children going back to school is the scientific advice, which according to the Government website states that;
‘there is high scientific confidence that children of all ages have less severe symptoms than adults if they contract coronavirus and there is moderately high scientific confidence that younger children are less likely to become unwell if infected with coronavirus’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/closure-of-educational-settings-information-for-parents-and-carers/reopening-schools-and-other-educational-settings-from-1-june)
But what this interpretation of the advice fails to do is to think about what happens when these allegedly a-symptomatic or mildly-symptomatic children get home, interact with their family members, spread the virus on to them. What if these family members are vulnerable, or are in turn supporting relatives who are elderly or have underlying health conditions? While we may be past the first peak of the virus, there is every chance that there will be more peaks to endure, and opening schools more could be the source of one of them with children being the super spreaders. There is also growing awareness of children being severely adversely affected by an inflammatory disease linked to coronavirus and similar to Kawasaki disease (see BBC report here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-52648557).
And is the driver for this really just educational, or is it economic too… Are decisions being made only with our children’s welfare and the welfare of school staff in mind, or is the desire to boost business by getting people back to work part of this thinking?
There are many reasons why, hard though it is, we have to tough it out for a bit longer before our schools open more. I recognise how hard it is for parents, especially parents with children with high care needs, I don’t write as ‘The Additional Needs Blogfather’ for no reason, we have our own son with additional needs at home and desperate to get out and back to school again, but the risks are too high.
I also realise that some children are being identified as at risk due to lockdown; at risk from abuse and neglect, at risk from mental health issues, at risk from a lack of good quality food and exercise, at risk from not receiving any education at home. These risks are real and I recognise them, but herding children back into school shouldn’t be the only answer to these issues, there should be a wider plan involving social services, remote learning and local healthcare provision for a start. The alternative of a return to school is just too high a risk, hard though that is to balance.
I for one would rather struggle on as we are, playing our part in keeping families and school staff safe for a while longer, than risk the terrible consequences of a return to school kick-starting a second coronavirus peak. I don’t want the ‘Heroes’ mentioned by the Daily Mail to be dead ones.
Image rights: Header © PA Images, Front page of Daily Mail © Daily Mail, PPE © Jon Super/AP, Photo of Clare and James © Mark Arnold
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