The latest U-turn – this time on face masks in schools – comes less than a week before hundreds of thousands of teachers, including myself, return to the classroom. But is the announcement that secondary school pupils may have to wear masks as they make their way around schools really a smart idea? I’m not convinced.
The English edict on masks in schools follows previous woolly guidance from Boris Johnson’s government. In place of decisive leadership, we are told that head teachers will have the ‘flexibility’ to introduce masks in their schools. Yet surely either masks work – in which case all schools should use them – or they cause bigger problems than they mitigate – in which case why has the government U-turned? All we can say for sure is that rather than take the lead, the government has once again left the responsibility of the decision over masks to schools and head teachers. After months of trying our best to teach pupils remotely – and a fortnight after the exam debacle – it’s hard to ignore the thought that the government is making life harder, rather than easier, for teachers.
At least Nicola Sturgeon has been decisive. But even in Scotland – where the government has said all pupils moving through schools will wear masks (and not leave this to headteachers to decide) – the hokey-cokey approach is dubious at best. While it may seem laudable for masks to be worn in corridors and taken off in classrooms, that on-off approach flies in the face of earlier government guidance that any benefit of mask wearing was compromised when the wearer fiddled with them. These masks are going to be on and off (and likely stuffed into and out of pockets) all day long. Is that really wise?
When they return to school, children will, at least, be able to mix socially within their ‘bubbles’. They can sit next to each other, huddle into groups and support each other, and re-form the bonds that create society. We are social beings and we need each other in body as well as mind.
For teachers, however, the outlook is rather more grim. The changes in my own school over the summer will have been replicated across the country and they are bad news for those looking forward to seeing their colleagues again. Our staff room has been transformed. The 40 comfy chairs are out; eight hard chairs are in. All socially distanced. The policy regarding the staff kettle is maybe even more dispiriting: ‘Only one member of staff in the kitchen area at once, and please store your mugs in your own work area’. I suspect we will be removing more than our mugs to the isolated pockets of space that have been made available for us. Of course we can ‘zoom in’ to each other across the school but we are human beings too. And even as we return to schools, teachers will miss the companionship of their colleagues. After five months of video conferencing, I am desperate for real social contact with other people: my colleagues and friends. Instead we have social distancing and the possible imposition of masks, so we cannot even smile to each other. Is this really what we want our schools to be like?
To limit the amount of time children move around areas of the school, students have been confined to classrooms in their ‘year group bubbles’. For teachers, this means the added hardship of constantly having to be on the move, carrying our resources and materials with us. Books will inevitably be forgotten. Classrooms will likely become places of chaos in the gaps between teachers moving around. And it’s unlikely that lessons will be able to run on time as teachers make their way through the school on the hour, every hour. We can’t even retreat to the staff toilets for a group moan; strict occupancy limits apply there too.
Teaching is a hard job. A third of new entrants leave within five years, while the ‘wastage’ rate from the state-maintained sector is around ten per cent each year. The return to school this September – after five months working from home – may push those figures yet higher.
And the government’s latest U-turn is hardly helping matters. Yes, we need to stay safe. But has the mask decision really been thought through? If it has – which I am not convinced about – then it is unfair for ministers to put the onus on headteachers to decide whether to implement this policy or not. The government needs to start treating people like adults and say what the evidence is for the mask U-turn. It also needs to decide whether masks are important enough that they should be compulsory or not. Anything else is a failure of leadership.
* This article was first published by The Spectator on 26 August 2020: Boris’s mask debacle is doing a disservice to teachers.