Secondary schools across England will be closed to most pupils for the first two weeks of term after the Christmas holidays, with schools in areas with particularly high rates of coronavirus remaining online-only for longer, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has announced, under new measures introduced to limit the spread of Covid-19.
The Guardian spoke to three teachers who gave their thoughts on the announcement.
‘It’s unsafe for teachers and children to return’
Liz, a secondary school teacher from Leigh-on-Sea, is very nervous and thinks the mass testing rollout is unclear.
“It’s not enough to have a staggered start to the term – we need more time to cut off the infection rates because at the moment it’s unsafe for teachers and children to return,” said the 44-year-old. “Essex has just experienced a surge in cases and I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up on the list Williamson mentioned.”
She is concerned about the way the government has been making announcements at short notice and feels there is a “lack of awareness of what happens in schools”.
“The reality is that teenagers don’t socially distance – they just forget themselves. Scores of colleagues have been either off with Covid or sent home because their apps went off. We also have students who are really struggling with their mental health, with quite a number being absent for months because they can’t cope with coming back.
“As a parent I think some people will keep their children at home. I have no doubt that opening schools will cause an uptick in cases and that in truth, kids in school are not going to benefit from amazing learning experiences to make that worth it.”
‘It doesn’t feel like we’ve had any support’
In Bristol, Emma*, a primary teacher, will not be going back any later, with Williamson’s announcement keeping most primary schools on schedule to return on 4 January. She says the reopening of primary schools should also have been delayed in line with the measures for secondary pupils.
“I think they should have delayed opening primary schools until 11 January, two clear weeks after 25 December, to reduce the risk of transmission from gatherings over Christmas,” Emma said. “Talk around schools is often focused on secondary schools, and while I understand that infection rates aren’t as bad, they’re still bad in primary schools. Every school in my local area has had whole year groups off isolating, and it doesn’t feel like we’ve had any support.”
For Emma, the most effective way of opening schools safely is to prioritise the vaccination of teachers alongside healthcare workers and other key worker groups.
“If we want to keep schools open, we need to be having vaccinations for teachers and other members of the school community,” she said. “There’s a lot of talk about teachers and the battle we’re facing, but cleaners, cooks and dinner ladies need to be included. There’s been a lack of foresight and understanding of the wider school community.”
‘A week will do nothing’
Helen, a 30-year-old secondary school teacher in Sunderland, does not think the announcement will have much impact.
“Delaying going back by one week, and not delaying it at all for primary school children, will do nothing. If it’s just one week, it’s not going to help,” she said. “The death rate has been huge today, and the rates of transmission are still increasing exponentially. It feels very reactionary, like the government just need to do something, rather than coming from forward planning.”
Despite this, Helen says she, like her colleagues, is desperate to get back in the classroom to support her students.
“As a teacher I want to go back to work, I want to support students who I know have loved being back in classrooms,” she said. “There is a narrative that teachers want to extend their holidays, or work from home, but every colleague I know prefers to be in the classroom.”
* Some of the names in this article have been changed.