COVID-19 Education

Only once teachers are protected can we get back to the classroom in confidence

It is imperative that we delay the physical return to work to vaccinate those at the front line in schools.

Teachers and education support personnel must be prioritised in the roll-out of the vaccine.

At the weekend Boris Johnson urged parents to send their children to primary schools on Monday as he claimed that classrooms are “safe.”

In which case, why are secondaries — and London primaries — closed?

Schools were closing for Christmas when Matt Hancock rashly announced that the new Covid-19 mutation was “out of control.”

If that did not cause panic, then government dithering last week has left teachers’ confidence shattered.

I am a secondary school teacher so I have some breathing space — I will be back on my laptop teaching all my pupils remotely for the next week at least — but many primary colleagues have no such security.

Throughout the weekend they had to resort to the news agenda to find out what would be expected of them on Monday morning.

Kerry Haines, a Year 4 teacher in Coventry, told me that she felt let down: “As teachers, we work incredibly hard to provide a safe and vibrant learning environment for our children and yet the burden of keeping the children safe and ourselves safe is overwhelming.

“When my colleagues in the secondary sector are being told that it is not safe for them to return to work, I feel ignored and absolutely furious.

“Our work environments are the same, if not more risky with smaller children who cannot remember to socially distance all day.”

At the weekend, Gavin Williamson told us that we must “move heaven and earth” to get children back into the classroom.

As a teacher I agree with that. I came into this job to get alongside children, teach them, help them with their work and hopefully even inspire them, not to sit in front of a laptop providing learning opportunities from the far end of an internet link.

But if Williamson is serious then he must urge that teachers and education support personnel are prioritised in the roll-out of the vaccine.

Not in a few months’ time, but now. The lateral flow tests the Department for Education has promoted will not protect us from Covid-19.

According an evaluation by Oxford University and Public Health England, those tests miss around a quarter of positive cases.

As the graph of positive cases follows an almost vertical trajectory, that matters.

On Twitter, Williamson announced that “this expansion of testing into schools and colleges will ensure more certainty for children and parents and everyone working so hard in education.”

But in response, former regional director of public health for the South East England region, Mike Gill, said: “Williamson’s statement was bad enough on its own since it comes across as yet another egregious display of not being guided by science.

The last thing anybody should be encouraged to entertain after a [lateral flow] test result, whether positive or negative, is certainty, let alone ‘more’ of it.”

The fact is that testing — even “mass testing” — will not prevent teachers catching Covid-19, with each one consigning more colleagues into yet more periods of self-isolation away from school.

That is no way to run an education system, certainly not one in which the government still proposes to deliver fair GCSE and A-level examinations in five months’ time.

When Williamson wrote about heaven and earth, what he needed to talk about was vaccination.

It is imperative that we delay the physical return to work to vaccinate those at the front line in schools.

A government with foresight would have started this during the school holiday, but we are where we are.

Only when we are protected can we think about getting back into the classroom.

When we fly, airlines insist that we fit our own oxygen masks first so that we can then help others.

This week, a vaccination programme must be established in schools so that we can help the next generation, and do it with confidence.

Debbie Hayton

Debbie Hayton is a member of the national executive committee of NASUWT; she is writing here in a personal capacity.

* This article was first published by The Morning Star on 4 January 2021: Only once teachers are protected can we get back to the classroom in confidence.

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By Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

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